EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Judge Sara Smolenski, chief judge of the Kent County District Court, has been denied Communion at the church where she has been a parishioner for more than six decades because she is married to a woman.
It is a move that for many was the final straw in a pattern of behavior that has them calling for the removal of a priest — a priest who came to St. Stephen Catholic Church about three years ago.
In 1966, under the leadership of Rev. Msgr. Edward N. Alt, St. Stephen Catholic School became the first integrated Catholic school in Metro Grand Rapids and had a student body that was nearly 40 percent non-Catholic.
This tradition of inclusion and acceptance would be the essence of the school and the church for 50 years.
But now, some here say that is changing.
“I’ve been a member of St. Stephen’s Catholic Parish for 62 years, basically,” Smolenski said.
Smolenski who has been on the bench for nearly 30 years, comes from a family of prominent community members, including her father who was also a district court judge, and her brother, a state appeals court judge.
“I was baptized there, my parents were married there, every one of my nine siblings went to school (from) first through eighth grade. We buried my parents out of that school,” Smolenski said. “This is a church that is a part of who I am. This is a church who helped form my faith.”
News 8 featured Smolenski in March of 2016, when she became the first Kent County elected official to marry someone of the same sex.
But it was just last Saturday that Smolenski got a call from the parish priest, Father Scott Nolan.
“The way he said it was ‘because you’re married to Linda in the state of Michigan, you cannot accept communion,’ that’s how he said it,” Smolenski explained. “I try to be a good and faithful servant to our Lord Jesus Christ. My faith is a huge part of who I am, but it is the church that made that faith, the very church where he is taking a stance and saying ho-ho, not you.”
It was a devastating revelation for the lifelong Catholic who months earlier gave $7,000 to the parish building fund.
“Oh my gosh, I’m not going to get Jesus at the church I have devoted my life to,” Smolenski said, fighting back tears. “I thought of my mom and dad who devoted their whole life to raising us Catholic, spending all that money at the Catholic education.”
Smolenski was not the first person to be denied, according to a dozen people News 8 talked to Tuesday, including one same-sex couple who was denied the Eucharist during their child’s communion service.
“The public shunning — everything about it was offensive,” Smolenski said of the denial months before her own.
It is part of a pattern, according to Micki Benz, a 40-year member of the parish who is a part of a group of members who have decided to speak out.
They point to the words of Pope Francis who wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation.
Evangelii Gaudium, translates as “joy of the Gospel,” that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak and the church is not a toll house but a place for everyone.
“(Nolan) has eliminated teachers who are gay. He has made it clear that gay people are not welcome,” Benz said.
For a period of time, Nolan forbade non-Catholics from participating in church services, including choir and reading before the congregation, members say.
Parishioners met with Nolan and were hopeful that he was changing his ways, until last Saturday when the beloved judge was denied Communion.
Nolan talked to News 8 briefly Tuesday, promising he would speak on the issue but then did not call back or return messages.
There are those who believe Nolan is in the right, but they would not go on camera. Others with kids attending school would not go on camera due to fear of reprisal, but all say they love the church and want healing.
“I love the St. Stephen’s I knew. I don’t love the St. Stephen’s of now,” Smolenski said.
Some members say it would be better overall for the church to change pastors.
“We don’t see Father Scott changing; therefore we’ve come to the conclusion that it’d be better for him and us if there were a change in our pastors,” Benz said.
Some parishioners have drafted a letter to Bishop David Walkowiak, bishop of the Diocese of Grand Rapids, explaining their position and asking for a meeting — a request he has not responded to in the past.
>> Inside WOODTV.com: Letter to Bishop David Walkowiak.
“We really, really want a meeting with him. Everybody is prepared to be very respectful. We just want him to know what this is doing to one of his parishes,” Benz said.
News 8 reached out to the Diocese of Grand Rapids who would not address the issue of whether Nolan’s actions are supported by the bishop.
A spokesperson did issue this terse statement presumably about what happened with Judge Smolenski: “This is a spiritual matter between her and her pastor.”
Smolenski says it is time to bring this into the light.
“I want to help somebody out there who’s never even been born to make their life a little bit easier — by standing up and speaking the truth,” she said.
**Editor’s note: Nolan did speak with News 8 the day after this report aired. You can see that report here.