Catholic diocese backs closing Durham school amid rumored protest over LGBTQ speaker

Durham City Council member Vernetta Alston, center, talks with member Mark-Anthony Middleton, right, at Durham City Hall.
Durham City Council member Vernetta Alston, center, talks with member Mark-Anthony Middleton, right, at Durham City Hall. bthomas@heraldsun.com

Parents at Immaculata Catholic School in Durham still want LGBTQ City Council member Vernetta Alston to speak to students.

The Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, meanwhile, stood by the pastor’s decision to close the school and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church on Friday over threats of protests.

Alston, an Immaculata alumna, was invited by the school’s African-American Heritage Committee to speak about her life of public service on Friday during Black History Month.

In a letter Friday, the committee expressed “deep sadness at the cancellation of [Alston’s] speaking engagement” and “any pain she is experiencing as a result.”

The letter was signed by parents Oriana Johnson, Danielle Sutton, Kaaren Haldeman, Kendra Maultsby-Mudd, Jessica Murrell, Armide Newby, Aisha Soderberg, Keia Sanderson and Kathy Everett-Perry.

In its statement, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh responded to a reporter’s questions with a statement:

“Bishop [Luis Rafael] Zarama continues to support the recent decisions [the Rev. Christopher VanHaight] made in this matter and looks forward to further supporting him in inviting constructive dialogue with the school, parish and broader community,” the statement says.

Influential women

VanHaight sent a letter to parents on Thursday telling them that school would be closed on Friday.

“[A] number of groups are planning demonstrations at our school that day, to register their respective opinions regarding Vernetta Alston,” he wrote. “As pastor, I cannot place our Immaculata students into this contentious environment.”

VanHaight referred all questions on Thursday to the diocese.

Immaculata, which was quiet Friday morning, serves about 450 students in pre-K through middle school. The theme for Black History Month is “Influential African American Women.” Alston was one of three black female leaders invited to speak during the month, including Durham Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson and District Court Judge Shamieka Rhinehart.

“In Ms. Alston’s work at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, she educated the public about North Carolina’s unfair capital punishment system, advocated against the death penalty and helped to exonerate a person wrongfully convicted and on death row,” the heritage committee wrote.

“She is a champion for fair and equitable housing in our rapidly changing city, and a voice for just and compassionate policy in an era of instability and fear among our immigrant families,” the letter said. “She is the Immaculata Way of Life. Sadly, a few expressed concerns about Ms. Alston’s presence at our school. Questions were raised about her sexual orientation and her public stance in support of gay marriage as contrary to Catholic doctrine.”

The committee was “stunned, frustrated and extremely disappointed,” when the event was canceled, the letter continued.

“While the safety of our students is paramount, that focus is misplaced,” it said. “The real issue here is a decision to cancel the speaking engagement of an accomplished, well-respected, local Black female leader who also happens to be an alumna of our school — a product of Catholic education — and how that decision does not reconcile with our community values.”

Committee members contacted Michael J. Fedewa, superintendent of schools for the diocese, which covers the eastern half of North Carolina. He wrote back, “I encourage you to speak with the principal and/or pastor regarding this matter as it is a local decision.”

A Catholic school is governed by its parish, with the pastor in charge. The principal of Immaculata is Dana Corcoran, and VanHaight is pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. The school shares the campus with the church. Attempts to reach church and school leadership on Friday were unsuccessful.

Parents still want Alston to speak

Haldeman and other parents said they have found only one protest threat, on what they described as right-wing blog from outside North Carolina. Efforts to verify the identity of and contact the person on the blog have been unsuccessful.

Haldeman said parents will meet with VanHaight again in the coming weeks.

“We really want to have more conversations with church authorities about bringing Vernetta to school, and other political leaders,” she said. “We just really want our kids to be able to see these influential black women,” she said.

Durham City Council Ward 3 candidate Vernetta Alston's grandmother's house was razed for the Durham Freeway.

Alston responded with a public letter on Thursday night.

“Immaculata is a religious institution and I believe strongly in the freedom to believe and worship how one chooses, even if a belief conflicts with something fundamental to my own life,” she wrote.

“That said,” she continued, “adherence to that basic principle means that I can freely say that the Church, by depriving the students at Immaculata of the chance to honor Black history, and in doing so, condemning the lives and rights of the LGTBQ community, is sending a sad, regressive, and life-altering message to our children – that the voices and experiences of those within the Black community can be canceled and that inclusion is not valued by some who are charged with shaping their character. I reject that message.”

Support for Alston

Alston’s fellow council members expressed support for her on Thursday night.

Johnson, who is also LGBTQ, posted on her public Facebook page, saying she is “so fortunate to serve on the Durham City Council with someone as caring, smart, and compassionate as my colleague and friend Vernetta Alston.”

“Vernetta has my unwavering support, and I am so disappointed that the administration at [Immaculata] Catholic School allowed bigotry and hatred to win the day. We should all strive to do better for our LGBTQ community,” Johnson wrote.

Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton, called Alston “a paragon of integrity and kindness.”

“Her intellect and deep love for her city challenge me to be a better public servant. I am proud to sit with her in service to our beloved Durham, and I am more proud to stand with her now,” Middleton wrote.

The LGBTQ Center of Durham also posted support on Facebook, saying they “were disappointed to learn that ... Alston was uninvited to speak at her alma mater for a Black History Month event. Tonight we are doubly honored to be served by someone whose leadership is marked by such dignity and class in her response. #TeamVernetta #westandwithyou.”

On Feb. 2, a majority of Durham’s elected leaders on the council, school board and county board performed at the “Bull City Lip Sync Battle,” a benefit for the LGBTQ Center of Durham held at The Pinhook downtown. Mayor Steve Schewel ushered in his term last year calling the city a progressive beacon for the South and the nation.

N.C. Rep. Marcia Morey, Sen. Mike Woodard and Rep. Zack Hawkins also performed at the benefit concert.

Morey, who is LGBTQ, has been a previous speaker at Immaculata, said Haldeman.

Staff writer Virginia Bridges contributed too this story.

To send story tips


Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer