A former Catholic church official fired from his suburban post in 2014 after announcing plans to marry another man is now part of a new faith venture billed as an alternative Catholic worship experience.
Colin Collette is music director for Agape: A Community of New Hope in Palatine, described as "an intentional Eucharist community rooted in the Catholic tradition."
The group, which Collette helped start in the Palatine basement of co-founder Jill Piccolino, is not sanctioned by the Archdiocese of Chicago. Agape now meets in the sanctuary of the 171-year-old St. John United Church of Christ in Palatine and offers a weekly 5 p.m. Saturday Mass led by a Catholic priest or lay person.
"We get together for Catholic Mass," said Collette, 56. "We really started with folks that just did not feel that they could, with any integrity, still be part of a church that could treat people the way I was treated."
Collette was fired from his 17-year post as music director of Holy Family Catholic Community in Inverness after announcing his engagement to to Will Nifong. A federal court in April ruled in the archdiocese's favor in a discrimination suit brought by Collette.
St. John Pastor David Foxgrover said Agape's 90-day agreement to rent the sanctuary began June 3, after gaining the Protestant congregation's approval. St. John holds a Sunday service, so there is no conflict with Agape's Mass.
"We hope that it works out and we can extend the agreement," Foxgrover said.
Piccolino also spent 17 years at Holy Family, before leaving her position as assistant director of worship as a show of support for Collette. She said Agape has an active email list of about 275 people and has attracted worshippers who used to attend the Inverness church, which was divided after Collette's dismissal.
"We had so many friends that left Holy Family because of the situation (with Collette) and they kept coming to us saying, 'We have nowhere to go. We know we don't want to go back there,'" Piccolino said.
Anecdotal evidence suggests Catholic communities similar to Agape have been growing across the country, said Richard Gaillardetz, chair of Boston College's theology department. However, he added, the number of participants are small relative to the larger Catholic population and not representative of a significant movement.
"I am generally sympathetic with the concerns that have led to the creation of such communities, particularly in Catholic dioceses where a lack of authentic church leadership has created a situation where they feel it is impossible for them to have their spiritual needs met or where a spirit of judgmentalism and exclusivism has held sway," said Gaillardetz, a professor of Catholic systematic theology.
Professor Daniel Maguire of Marquette University's theology department said Agape reflects the Catholic church's early days in not needing a priest for Mass.
"There is nothing second-rate about it," said Maguire. However, he added, he's found that such communities typically do not last.
Collette said it never was a secret at Holy Family that he's gay. He sought reinstatement to his position, back pay and money damages in the suit he filed in U.S. District Court in March 2016. He claimed he was illegally fired after announcing his engagement to Nifong on Facebook in 2014.
But Collette said he won't pursue an appeal or other legal avenues regarding a decision against his case in April by U.S. District Judge Charles P. Kocoras. The judge cited the right of religious organizations to control internal affairs in siding with the archdiocese and Holy Family.
Piccolino said Collette's firing led to the launching of Agape as a small group gathering in her basement for a Mass two years ago. Agape then rented space at Hoffman Estates Park District's Willow Recreation Center before holding a Christmas Eve Mass at St. John last year. That led to a joint service on March 19 and the June rental agreement.
Gaillardetz said a celebration of the sacraments by any validly ordained Catholic priest "would be valid, but illicit, in the parlance of Catholic sacramental theology" at Agape or other Eucharistic communities created without formal permission of the local bishop,
"Any priest who would celebrate the sacraments in such a community ... would almost certainly run afoul of church authorities and would probably face some kind of ecclesiastical discipline," he said.
Chicago archdiocese spokeswoman Anne Maselli declined to address Collette's unsuccessful lawsuit or Agape. Holy Family's pastor, the Rev. Terry Keehan, deferred to the archdiocese for comment.