Casey and Mary Ellen Lopata are co-founders of Fortunate Families, a ministry by, for, and with Catholic parents of LGBT persons. Fortunate Families brings parents together, develops and shares resources, and helps parents advocate for justice for their LGBT daughters and sons. In 2005 they received the New Ways Ministry Bridge Building Award. In 2011 they received DignityUSA’s President’s Award for Extraordinary Leadership.
Mary Ellen and Casey were born in the Detroit area in the 1940’s. Raised by faithful Catholic parents, they met in Catholic high school. They and both sets of parents were strong supporters of John F. Kennedy. Partially because he was Catholic, but also because Mary Ellen’s uncle was one of the PT-109 crew saved by JFK. Mary Ellen served as a “Kennedy Girl” during the campaign. That was the catalyst that began their dating when Casey was at the University of Detroit and Mary Ellen was still in high school. They married in 1963. Mary Ellen worked at Lincoln-Mercury and Casey was in his final year of college and doing co-op work at Ford Motor Company. In 1966 they moved to Rochester NY when Casey joined Xerox. Mary Ellen became a full-time mother raising four children born between 1964 and 1968. Later, via the part-time route, she earned her BA in Liberal Arts from Nazareth College. But it was Vatican II-inspired religious leaders who nurtured their shared Catholic social justice values and helped prepare them for their unexpected entry into ministry with LGBTQ people and their families.
Thanksgiving weekend 1983 their son Jim came out to them. This started them on a long journey of prayer, education, and, ultimately, advocacy. At first Mary Ellen felt isolated. Jim was the first gay person she had known. Yet, by simply being himself he challenged the stereotypes she had somehow assimilated. "The only thing I knew for sure was that I loved my son.” It was in 1987, in a Webster NY parish workshop on homophobia and homosexuality, when she realized, "if I loved my son as I said I did, I could not remain silent. I began to realize what a special gift Jim is to me, to our family, and the whole body of Christ--not in spite of, but because he is gay." So, she and Casey became increasingly involved with LGBT organizations. They came to see that parents are in a unique position to make a difference, especially in religious groups. Casey participated in the 1991 founding meeting of one such group--Rochester's' Interfaith Advocates for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People.
In 1992, Mary Ellen and Casey along with six other Rochesterians attended a New Ways Ministry Symposium in Chicago. They came back home inspired and committed to meet and "do something." They dubbed themselves the "Rochester 8," and eventually Catholic Gay and Lesbian Family Ministry (CGLFM) emerged from their meetings.
In July 1994, Mary Ellen and Casey went to a Chicago meeting of Catholics involved in LGBT ministry. There, the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries (NACDLGM) was founded. Mary Ellen later served a term as Board president. That October they attended the first national retreat for Catholic parents of gay and lesbian people (facilitated by New Ways Ministry’s Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Robert Nugent) in Stamford CT.
In September 1996, CGLFM formally began to carry out its ministry on behalf of the Diocese of Rochester. Mary Ellen and Casey played an instrumental role in organizing a March 1, 1997 Mass with Catholic Gay and Lesbian People, Family, and Friends with Bishop Matthew Clark as presider and homilist. It drew an overflow crowd of 1,300 persons at the Cathedral along with over 50 protesters and extensive police protection.
In September 1996, Casey co-facilitated a workshop on ministry with parents at the NACDLGM Conference in Williamsburg, Virginia. This was one of many presentations that Mary Ellen and/or Casey did as part of their ministry in the U.S. and Canada. Other venues included: Call to Action; Catholic Charities USA; Catholic Parents Network; Dignity/USA; Halton (Ontario) Catholic School District; National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers; New Ways Ministry; Northwest Catholic Women's Convocation; and PFLAG.
Mary Ellen and Casey were consultors to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Marriage and the Family during the writing of Always Our Children, a pastoral message to parents of homosexual children issued in September 1997. Though not all they hoped for, it exceeded their initial expectations by officially calling for gay and lesbian ministry within the Catholic Church.
Mary Ellen and Casey left CG&LFM in April 2004 and launched Fortunate Families to formally expand their ministry with parents as a national organization.
In March, 2007, Fortunate Families board members attended a New Ways Ministry Symposium in Minneapolis. They facilitated a listening session for parents to tell their stories to Bishop (Ret.) Joseph Sullivan of Brooklyn, and Archbishop (Ret.) Francis Hurley of Anchorage.
In August 2008, Casey and Mary Ellen joined a group of prominent Catholic thought leaders to lay a foundation for a long-term strategy to build a pro-LGBT movement within Catholicism. Sponsored by the Arcus Foundation, this group convened and worked together through 2013. Through this process Fortunate Families became part of the Equally Blessed coalition along with Call To Action, DignityUSA, and New Ways Ministry. All received grants to help build capacity for outreach and advocacy. In November 2008, a major article about Mary Ellen and Casey, and Fortunate Families, was published in the National Catholic Reporter.
Before retiring from the Board in June 2014, Fortunate Families contracted with a management company to provide full service, day-to-day support. This was later phased out when Fortunate Families hired an Executive Director in October 2017. Mary Ellen and Casey continue to support ministry with Catholic parents, such as offering a 20-year anniversary perspective on Always Our Children at the 2017 DignityUSA Conference in Boston.
Asked about the future of the Catholic Church and LGBTQ persons, they said: “The U.S. Bishops got it right in 1976, saying, ‘Homosexual (sic) persons … have a right to respect, friendship, and justice…. They should have an active role in the Christian community’ [To Live in Christ Jesus]. At some point, we believe the Bishops, inspired by the Holy Spirit, will remember what they said, realize the laity and many priests are already there, and will jointly develop and implement a plan that truly makes respect, friendship and justice for LGBTQ people a reality in the Church.”
Casey has a Master of Divinity from St. Bernard’s Institute and Mary Ellen has a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies focusing on homosexuality and the family from Empire State College. Together they authored Fortunate Families: Catholic Parents with Lesbian Daughters and Gay Sons (2003); and Casey edited Seeds of Hope (2001) and More Seeds (2002), resource manuals for compassionate ministry with LGBT persons. Casey and Mary Ellen are the parents of four adult children (one of whom is gay), grandparents of eleven wonderful grandchildren (one of whom is transgender), and godparents of two delightful sons of a loving gay couple.
(This biographical statement drafted by Mark Bowman and edited by Casey & Mary Ellen Lopata.)
Casey wrote this article, "Can My Son Be Gay and Catholic" that was published in the Fall 1998 issue of Open Hands magazine.
Mary Ellen wrote "God's Love Revealed: Reflections on being a Catholic Mother" that was published in Homosexuality and the Catholic High School from Ontario Catholic Family Life Educator's Network, September 2001.
Mary Ellen and Casey were featured in this article in The National Catholic Reporter on November 28, 2008, "Family Life: Fortunate Families."
History of Fortunate Families, an historical timeline covering 1992-2018 (written by Casey & Mary Ellen Lopata).
Activist (church change) | Ally | Dignity | Gramick, Jeannine | National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian & Gay Ministries (NACDLGM) | New Ways Ministry | Nugent, Robert | Roman Catholic | New York | Rochester
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