Lives in: Glen Arm, Md.
Sr. Camille: Erma, I first learned of you through Frank DeBernardo. What brought you together?
Durkin: I became acquainted with Frank by way of my interest in the work done by Sr. Jeannine Gramick as far back as the '70s. Also, I've enjoyed a number of retreats offered by New Ways Ministry for LGBT people, their parents and friends. Because one of my sons is gay, my concern for him brought me into the enjoyable company of wonderful men and women who, as parents or friends of lesbian or gay children, were in active ministry to LGBT members of their parish. Frank is a fine gentleman and a capable leader. He's always present as master of ceremonies introducing the retreat director and keeping the participants moving in the right direction. I made an effort to participate in New Ways Ministry's many consciousness-raising events. In March of 2011, I went on its pilgrimage to northern Italy with others committed to LGBT people.
Please tell us about your birth family.
I was the first child of Edward and Anna (Turek) Hoffman, born Sept. 16, 1929, in the midst of our country's deep economic depression. My father, an American-born son of an immigrant Germany family, worked as a pipe fitter in Baltimore. Mother was one of many children born in the United States to Anna and Anton Turek, immigrants from Bohemia. My grandmother, Anna, lived with us until she died when I was in the third grade. I have fond memories of her.
Our life in Baltimore revolved around the Bohemian parish of St. Wenceslaus. I went to elementary school there. Tuition was eleven cents a week; daily Mass was part of my education. My dear Bubishka walked to an earlier Mass every morning. She spoke very little English but had no difficulty communicating. My heart is moved by the stories my mother told me about her as I grew older.
What kind of stories?
She was a veritable priest, counselor and consoler to many of the Bohemian women living in the neighborhood. If someone in the neighborhood was near death but no longer was a practicing Catholic, a family member would get my Bubishka to come to the house and pray over her.
Did you have any siblings?
My sister, Anna, was born when I was 2 years old. Though my mother gave birth to only two girls, she helped raise the five children born to her brother, Joseph, when his wife died, leaving their three boys and two girls without a mother. Fortunately, they lived nearby, enabling my mother to teach the oldest girl, about 12 years old, how to care for the family. Mother was readily available if needed while my uncle was at work.
As the years passed, my sister and I came to regard these five children more as sisters and brothers than cousins. And these cousins loved my mother very much. Our home was a welcoming place. Anyone who dropped by was greeted warmly and offered a treat freshly baked in the big iron coal stove that heated the entire house in the winter.
Mother always lent a sympathetic ear to her visitors and would share the wisdom she had gained through experience. Mother was 97 years old when she died, beloved by everyone who knew her.
Did you have a specific hero or heroine?
My dad was my hero. He was tall, muscular and quiet. From my earliest years I remember feeling so proud as we walked through Clifton Park on a Sunday, often carrying a portion of Mother's Sunday dinner to Grandmother Hoffman. Dad's mother was bedridden, and her stroke made understanding her speech difficult. Grandmother Hoffman was not Catholic, but her faith was evident in her faithful attention to Sunday's radio broadcast of the Gospel Tabernacle.
My dad loved the outdoors and, in particular, fishing. When I was 4, he began to teach me how to fish. Most of my childhood memories are about our great catches or our failures. With very few words between us, we listened to the calls of birds, watched water snakes crossing from shore to shore, admired the dragonflies resting on our fishing poles and swayed with the lapping of the waves on the sides of our rowboat.
As a youngster, my concept of God -- all loving, all good, always watching over me -- was made concrete to me in the person of my father, who would go to any length to protect me, to care for me, and who rejoiced in my happiness. Even as a feminist, the word "father" has only a warm and safe sound to it for me when reciting the Our Father.
How did you meet your husband?
During the 20 years I lived and worked within a religious community, my parents moved to a new neighborhood. Consequently, when I returned to live with them once more, everything and everyone was new to me. One day, we were seated at the dining room table when a clanging noise claimed our attention. Our window faced the backyard of a house on the next street. My mother knew the noisemaker.
"That's Dick Durkin, taking the trash out. He helps his mother clean up after dinner every day."
Then my father, who never wasted words, said, "Yeah, he's one good guy." I could tell that my dad liked Dick Durkin.
But it was about a year before I actually met Dick. I had been helping my parents during the day and taking evening courses at Loyola College. On a lovely summer evening, while I was painting our back fence, I heard my mother ask, "Erma, have you met Dick?" We exchanged a polite hello. It was weeks before I decided to find a women's bowling league. I'd heard that Dick enjoyed bowling, and so I asked him if he had the information I wanted. He didn't, but asked if I'd like to bowl with him.
Well, going bowling led to going to the movies, which led to going to the Washington Zoo. It was at the zoo that Dick surprised me with a proposal of marriage. It amuses me now when I think about it. He seemed rather pensive during our outing, not enjoying the animals as much as me. Then, as we were getting into the car to drive from the bears' area to the big cats' area, Dick surprised me by saying: "Erma, I've been thinking, we're not getting any younger, and I would like to have a family, would you consider marrying me?" Then he pled his case: He had a good job with the Pennsylvania Railroad as an electrician; he had already purchased land in Baltimore County 10 years ago in anticipation of building a house there when he'd marry. Our families were practicing Catholics and had been good neighbors for years. Evidently, he had thought this through. I was stunned. I hadn't thought about marrying, and I'd not imagined myself as a mother. I had never even held an infant.
We were married on Sept. 11, 1967, with a nuptial Mass in our parish church, The Shrine of the Little Flower. Richard was 39 years old, and I was 38.
How would you describe your marriage?
We both considered ourselves fortunate to have found each other at that stage in our lives. We had our first son in 1968, the second in 1969, and our daughter in 1972. Our children could not have had a more loving and dedicated father.
Before Dick's death on April 4, 2002, he saw our first son, who had earned a doctorate in physics from Berkeley, married to a California girl who is now a medical doctor and specialist in rheumatology. He did not live long enough to enjoy the birth of their two little girls. He saw our second son graduate from Parsons in New York and become a successful business owner.
Dick was overjoyed to see our daughter married in a traditional manner at our parish church. Though her husband is not Catholic, they are a good match. Both are artists and have eyes for beauty, seeing it in things that most of us overlook.
Please mention some learnings.
My marriage came as a surprise. It had not been in my plans. From it, I gained a deeper, more constant and obvious way of loving. The needs and desires of each family member had to be considered 24/7, not only my own nor on my schedule.
Because of the reactions and observations of my children, I felt I was more insightful when teaching children in the parish religious education classes.
The most stressful and challenging times arose when we, as older-than-usual parents with very small children, were trying to meet the needs of our older parents also, as one after the other became less mobile, suffered a terminal illnesses, or died. But, thank God, we managed to meet each situation as it developed. And the children were never neglected as a consequence.
Because I was married and had children, I now have more empathy and understanding with the problems women encounter with regard to reproductive rights than I had before marriage.
So my marriage can be described briefly as a loving, learning, productive and grateful relationship with others.
What is your image of God?
I have long ago disassociated my thoughts of God with any concrete image. I find myself more comfortable with the abstract terms: Goodness. Truth. Reality. Beauty. Harmony. Unity. Oneness. Wherever and whenever I see anyone doing a good deed for another, I see the manifestation of the force of goodness.
I recognize God in the beauty of a garden, well designed and cared for. Though gardeners spent hours of back-breaking work to make it so, it is the drive to make things beautiful and harmonious that is the reflection of God. Seeing it brings forth a peaceful gentling of the heart, followed by prayers of gratitude.
Do you have a favorite Scripture passage?
Not really. For years, the Bible was my daily source for meditation. In later years, my interest turned to lectures by Scripture scholars. I prefer the inclusive Catholic lectionary to the lectionary used in our parish churches.
What about your faith is most meaningful to you?
The Mass, celebrated with a small, inclusive community.
As a mother of a gay son, where do you find support?
From the collective knowledge I have gained over the past 40 years from the following sources: Catholic women who identified as lesbian; relatives who were gay; organizations geared to promote social justice for LGBT people, e.g., Human Rights Campaign and PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays); Catholic ministries such as New Ways Ministry and Fortunate Families Inc., a ministry by Catholic parents of gay children who offer support to one another. In addition, I read many books by secular and Catholic authors who explain human sexual orientation, its consequences, and the need to reject the notion that to be LGBT is a person's free choice. When wrestling with the idea of gay marriage, I found the most helpful book was Just Love by Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley.
Do you have helpful advice for others?
Parents know and love their child better than anyone else. Once they suspect or realize their child is gay or lesbian, parents will react according to their personal perception and experiences of homosexuals in general, which can be very negative. Parents can feel very ashamed; they don't want anybody to know about this. Yet they will desperately want to talk to someone about their fears, their ignorance about the issue, and how they should act toward their child.
My advice would be to get in touch with a reputable group that ministers to parents who have LGBT children. Many faith communities, including Catholic communities, have resources that are immensely helpful to parents and their adult children alike.
It's up to parents to make the first move to help themselves be supportive of their children. They need to be positive and never, never go negative on their children. Disowning a child, forcing change by reparative therapy, public shaming in a church never changed a person with a homosexual orientation to one with a heterosexual orientation. Only horror stories result from the mental suffering caused by those who attempt to "heal" LGBT people.
What does Christianity offer you?
Christianity offers me the basic story of a person, Jesus, whose teachings on fidelity to the love of God and the practical love of neighbor inspired many to live unselfish lives. The history of Christianity, however, is replete with instances of angry divisions among Christians and the attempts by the elders to heal those divisions, even to the religious wars and schisms of the Reformation. There's conflict today among church leadership about the "face" of the church that should be shown to the world and distress among the laity about that "face," which looks angry, punitive, out of touch and unforgiving.
From Catholicism, I want a church that thinks globally but prepares pastors, whether bishops or priests, to be well versed in the language and culture of the people in the church they serve. It would be ideal if the bishops were open to responding to the questions the laity are grappling with in person rather than publishing letters that prohibit or warn against some social issue.
From Catholicism, I want a more mature church, and I'm seeing it emerge here and there. Just as from the earliest days of Christianity, the church saw its conflicts give birth to saints, philosophers, mystics, and theologians who attempted to meet and defeat by their writings the errors that troubled her, so today we have the many publications of scholarly, ethical and faithful women and men to help us mature in our spiritual lives. They move us along from the imaginings and understandings of the faith stories of our childhood to a more mature understanding. I thank God for them.
What in contemporary Catholicism encourages you?
The news and quotes I see published about Pope Francis.
What distresses you?
When I hear of a Catholic teacher or music minister being fired from a church job because they married their same-sex partner or in conscience supported marriage equality.
When a religious woman or a priest is barred from working for the church because they approved of women's ordination and were present at a ceremony. This is so counterproductive.
When meetings cannot be held on Catholic church property if it deals with a controversial (according to the bishop) subject, or even Catholic speakers cannot address a Catholic audience if they are known to be supportive of an issue "against the teachings of the church." Policies such as this makes the church look small-minded, vindictive, and unable to dialogue.
How do you relax?
By tending my gardens in spring, summer and autumn. Two-and-a-third acres surround my home. Surrounded by acres of open space and quiet neighbors, I enjoy working outdoors, coaxing the soil to produce beauty all around me.
At rest, I enjoy listening to lectures produced by The Teaching Company. I have a vast collection of their courses, mainly in the category of philosophy and intellectual history, Scripture, religion and theology, ancient and medieval history, and science. Whatever I have an interest in reviewing at the time, I put the disc in the player, situate myself in the recliner, and relax. And if I am resting after work in the garden or around the house, I often fall asleep before the lecture is over.
Do you have a favorite TV program?
When I'm watching TV with my daughter and son-in-law, my favorite is "Blue Bloods."
That's my favorite, too! What causes you sorrow?
Bullying, whether emotional, physical or financial, by anyone in a position of authority or of physical strength.
What causes you joy?
To be part of a eucharistic liturgy where the community is truly inclusive and members are invited to do one of the readings then enjoy a meaningful homily afterward. Where members of the laity bring the gifts to the altar and recite the offering prayer. Where at Communion time, the priest announces that the wine is alcohol-free and the bread is gluten-free, and everyone is welcome to the table.
And where almost everyone knows one another's name.
This is what gives me a special joy.
What gives you hope?
All the loving people I have met in my lifetime who take seriously their call to do justice while trying to create peace and harmony in their little orbits -- and beyond!
[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]
Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.