When I ask Wilhelmina Indermaur what she likes about Catholicism, her voice gets breathy and she starts talking at top speed, like she knows she only has so much time to answer the question and wants to pack in as much as she can.
She loves attending Mass, and describes it as a multisensory, “fully immersive” experience: the sound of the music, the smell of the incense, the taste of Communion, the physical movements (“we stand, we sit, we kneel; it’s like a dance”).
She loves the church’s ancient rituals, like reciting different prayers at different times of the day, and she loves the Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She wears a silver medallion engraved with the venerated saint, and her Instagram bio boasts the Latin phrase totus tuus, which comes from a devotion called the Consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary and translates to “totally thine.”
“Having this maternal energy and this maternal side of what divinity can be is very appealing to me, especially as a trans woman,” she says.
Indermaur grew up in Raleigh and was raised attending both United Methodist and Catholic services. Her grandmother, whom she calls Oma, was German Catholic, and she loves how practicing Catholicism makes her feel close to her ancestors.
Indermaur started attending Catholic Mass regularly during college. She was going through a lot—her mom was battling uterine cancer; her oma had died unexpectedly of ovarian cancer; she had been sexually assaulted multiple times; she had come out as gender queer—and found the church to be a “safe place.”
The Catholic Church generally isn’t known for being inclusive, but Indermaur says she always felt accepted as a queer person—and then as a queer, transgender woman, after she transitioned in 2019.
“I never felt like [the church] contradicted who I was,” Indermaur says. “I never felt like I was not meant to be there.”
That changed two weeks ago, when Indermaur learned that Immaculata Catholic School had prohibited her from working on its campus due to her gender identity.
Indermaur had been planning to take a role at the K–8 Durham school as an in-class aide for a disabled child whom she would be nannying this summer. The child—we’ll call her Emily—would start school at Immaculata in the fall, so her family had hired Indermaur as an independent contractor. Emily uses a wheelchair and requires assistance with both mobility and communication, so Indermaur would be advocating for her needs; helping her complete schoolwork, eat lunch, and use the bathroom; and taking her from class to class and to appointments with her physical and communicative therapists, whom she meets during the school day.
Indermaur seemed like the perfect person for the job: not only would she be familiar with Emily’s needs, but she had experience as an educator—she was a preschool teacher for the three years before the pandemic—and she was deeply ingrained in the community of both Immaculata and its governing parish, Immaculate Conception. Indermaur is registered as a parishioner of a Catholic church in Raleigh, but she’s been attending Mass at Immaculata regularly since 2017, when she moved to Durham. She frequently makes solitary visits to pray under the statue of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception on the church grounds and lights candles in the parish office chapel when she’s feeling distressed.
In 2020, she took a job nannying two children—in a different family than Emily’s—who attend Immaculata and has spent the past two years accompanying them to the school’s Friday morning prayer services, coaching them through religion homework, and chatting with their teachers.
When Emily’s parents offered Indermaur the in-class aide position, Indermaur was thrilled at the opportunity to work within the community she’d grown to know and love, and until two weeks ago, everything seemed set to go: she’d completed the necessary paperwork, passed a background check, and had multiple conversations with parents and teachers, who all seemed excited to have her on board.
Then, on June 16, Indermaur got a call from Emily’s parents. They were crying when she picked up the phone.
Jacek Orzechowski, the pastor of Immaculate Conception, had called an emergency meeting earlier in the week between the parish’s clerical staff and the school’s administrative staff, Emily’s parents told her. At the meeting, Orzechowski had stated that because Indermaur is transgender, she is unfit to work on Immaculata’s campus. (Immaculata, Immaculate Conception Church, and the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh did not respond to interview requests for this story.)
“It was devastating,” Indermaur says. “I stayed in bed for a day and a half, and I didn’t eat for two days.”
She felt a little better after the third day, when she posted about the situation on social media and messages of support began to come pouring in. But she still felt isolated in her grief; she only knows a few other LGBTQ Catholics, she says, so there weren’t many people who could really understand what the loss felt like. She also resented the school for forcing Emily’s parents to find a replacement aide last-minute.
“At first I had a kind of crisis of like, can I even be Catholic anymore? Can I support being a part of an institution that continues to do all these awful things?” Indermaur says. “But the spirituality is really important to me. And I feel like the church won’t change unless people inside of it are working to change it.”
She decided she would continue to practice Catholicism but no longer sees herself as part of Immaculata and Immaculate Conception’s community.
“I don’t feel like I can go near Immaculata,” Indermaur says. “I’ve been avoiding driving past it. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel welcome there again.”
The day before Indermaur found out she’d been barred from working on Immaculata’s campus, the school posted an image of a sunset overlaid with rainbow letters that say “REMAIN IN MY LOVE” on its Instagram account.
“Happy Pride month!” the caption reads. “Immaculate Conception welcomes members of the LGBTQ community.”
Two days later, the church posted the same text on Twitter and included it in a newsletter to parishioners. While the message seems ironic in the wake of Indermaur’s experience, it aligns with Immaculate Conception’s self-proclaimed commitment to social justice issues.
The parish is known for being fairly progressive; it has five “social action ministry teams,” including one that offers a space for support and discussion of “sexuality, gender, and spirituality in a loving, non-judgmental faith community,” and it’s named as one of four LGBTQ-friendly parishes in the state of North Carolina by Catholic LGBTQ advocacy group New Ways Ministry.
But Indermaur isn’t the first person to throw that label into question.
In 2018, Immaculata made national news when it invited, then uninvited, openly gay Immaculata alum and then Durham City Council member Vernetta Alston to speak as part of the school’s Black History Month celebration. Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson, who is queer, also had her invitation rescinded.
Christopher VanHaight, the pastor of Immaculate Conception at the time, said he decided to rescind Alston’s invitation after some parents expressed worry that “having a pro-gay-marriage politician speak at the school was calling into question the school’s commitment to upholding Catholic moral teaching,” The News & Observer reported. VanHaight canceled school the day after the recision, citing possible protests. After receiving backlash from parents and community members, VanHaight re-invited Alston to speak at Immaculate Conception at a later date. Alston was welcomed with a standing ovation when she took the pulpit the next month.
Angela Belusik, a teacher’s aide at Immaculata who has worked at the school in varying capacities for the past four years, says that until two weeks ago, she was under the impression that the school had “moved past” the incident with Alston. When she heard that Indermaur had been banned from teaching on the campus, she says it felt like “a smack in the face.”
Belusik describes Indermaur as “a present part of our community.” She has long seen Indermaur at morning prayer services and listened to students gush about her, and she made a point to introduce herself at the end of the school year.
“I was super excited to learn that she was going to be at the school,” Belusik says.
She views Immaculata’s rejection of Indermaur as a decision made in fear.
“What the kids would see is a loving, caring human able to care for another individual. And they would learn from that how to be compassionate humans,” Belusik says. “This is not teaching them compassion.”
Belusik says she doesn’t believe that the decision speaks to the heart of Immaculata. Though she can only speculate, she says her gut tells her that the ruling came from higher up. (There is no explicit stance regarding transgender people in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, though a number of dioceses in the United States have issued policies denying their existence over the past two years.)
“I think, unfortunately, Immaculata is part of a greater system where their hands are tied,” Belusik says.
Or maybe that’s just what she wants to believe, she says.
Leila Wolfrum, whose daughter recently graduated from Immaculata as school president, says the school frequently credits the diocese with its controversial decisions, but she doesn’t think the “out of our hands” excuse absolves the school of fault.
“Not to use religious language, but that covered a lot of sins for them,” Wolfrum says. “I think they were able to express closed-mindedness—and worse—under that shield.”
Wolfrum wasn’t aware of Indermaur’s rejection until I told her about it, but she says that if the diocese is indeed behind it, it’s disturbing that the school didn’t push back more.
“The idea that the diocese could make a decision like that, and that the community wouldn’t stand up for her, is astonishing to me,” Wolfrum says.
Belusik was the only teacher I could find who agreed to go on the record, though another teacher told me that much of Immaculata’s faculty is upset about Indermaur’s treatment. Belusik was raised Catholic but no longer identifies with the denomination—there’s too much she disagrees with, she says—and currently attends services at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham. She recognizes that speaking out against her employer may cost her her job, but she wants to exhibit the same courage that Duke Memorial pastor Heather Rodrigues showed when she first officiated a marriage between a same-sex couple within the walls of the church.
The day after our interview, Belusik asked if she could call me back with something that had kept her up during the night. When I answered the phone, she was crying.
“To those who have been beaten down and traumatized by religion, and threatened in the face of hate, through Christ and through religion—I want to say that there are people who don’t believe that that is our Christ,” Belusik says. “Our Christ would welcome Wilhelmina at the table. The same-sex couple who are the parents of one of my students would be at that table. And the hate would not be welcome at the table.”
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