“Well, I guess you have to do some sinning in order to have a reason to be saved,” Father Jim Profirio-Bond laughs as he literally disrobes to reveal an Orlando Gay Chorus T-shirt. He’s just wrapped up Sunday Mass on Dec. 15, and, as people of his congregation scurry to move the rollaway altar and secure the chalice and religious iconography, Father Jim returns himself to the secular world. How secular? Well, we’re in a gay bar, for starters.
“Last week, I got hit on by a guy at the bar after Mass,” Father Jim says. “I got a real kick out of it.”
In early December, Father Jim and his followers in the St. Dorothy Catholic Community – “We’re considered a schismatic offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church,” he says – were forced to relocate. Their previous home, the Winter Park Wedding Chapel on West New England Avenue, was slated to be razed (it was eventually relocated) by its owner, controversial Winter Park developer Dan Bellows. As fate would have it, a young new bar owner, Matt Fassl, had made his first visit to the church just as the news broke. He did what any good Christian would do: He quietly offered up his space for the church to hold services. That space just happened to be the longtime former home of a bar called the Cactus Club (and more recently Paradise and Orlando Nights) on Mills Avenue. Holy water was turned into holy wine and St. Matthew’s Tavern and Beer Garden was born.
But even given the odd circumstances under which hedonism and heaven met here, St. Dorothy’s is clearly no joke. In setting up the photographs for this story, Father Jim refused to pose in full priest regalia with a beer in his hand because “that’s a step too far,” he says. Moreover, Father Jim’s Masses, though executed at times with the assistance of a remote-controlled CD player before a congregation of casually dressed people of all stripes, are full of the same spiritual messages you either loved or hated if you grew up going to church. He delivers Communion with a palpable solemnity, mixing water and wine and carefully draping a cloth over his arm. It’s a real church with an active congregation – one that seems to match the more populist shift of the Catholic church under Pope Francis.
“I always say, ‘Everyone is welcome at Communion.’ I don’t give a dang if you’re a Lutheran, re-born Pentecostal or whatever. If you believe that’s the body and the blood of Christ, get your fanny up here,” he says. “You’d never see that in the Roman church. If you’ve had an abortion, if you’ve been remarried – that’s all man-made laws. We don’t bother with that. It’s your relationship with Christ, your personal relationship. And we’re there to help that, you know, make it real for you.”
“We’re trying to go back to what the church was, way back when,” he adds. “It’s awesome what [Pope] Francis is doing. I bet you if we sat down with him one-on-one, I bet you he’d say, ‘You’re welcome. We see what you’re doing. You’re doing nothing wrong.’”
The roots of St. Dorothy’s community can be traced back 16 years to a Catholic community group called Dignity, which met at the Center, Orlando’s LGBT community center. Over the years the group shifted venues and purposes, eventually opting to ditch the exclusively “gay Catholic group” tag for that of an all-inclusive Catholic parish. According to Father Jim, it was Father Anthony Borka who actually “got St. Dorothy’s up and going” before Father Jim and his partner of 22 years moved to the area around 2008. The group spent three years holding services at the Winter Park Wedding Chapel, growing its congregation to about 50 or 60 people.
In October 2012, Borka suffered a stroke. Borka still attends every Mass at St. Matthews, and though he has yet to fully recover – speaking is difficult, he gets around with a walker – he still participates, occasionally celebrating Mass himself.
“We almost lost him three times,” Father Jim says. “The power of prayer – I don’t want to sound all religious, but thank God for the power of prayer. It took awhile for him to get where he is.”
Father Jim is a self-described heavyset man with a full head of steely gray hair and a smile as wide as his face, that, when it opens, releases a thick Boston accent and likely a quip to match. For every serious comment on the state of Catholicism and the power and philanthropy of the St. Dorothy’s community, there’s a wink and a bawdy laugh bubbling just beneath. He’s 59 – “but not on Growlr; I’m 46 on Growlr!” – and works a day job as a travel agent for Wyndham Vacation Resorts; he also moonlights at Florida Hospital Celebration Health as, well, a priest.
He began pursuing the priesthood in 1972 after becoming a professed Third Order Franciscan in 1969. Most recently, he was ordained as a priest in Winter Park in 2011. Throughout the years, he’s been a teacher and even a principal at numerous Catholic and public schools, but that didn’t always work out.
“My love has always been Catholic education, and I’ve been a teacher, a principal, and a founding principal of a school in Colorado,” he says. “And every time it was found out that I was gay, bye-bye.”
So Father Jim pursued independent Catholicism, choosing to live by the parts of the Scripture and the faith that were inclusive and progressive. Last month, St. Dorothy’s adopted two poor families for Christmas, delivering them trees and gifts. This month, the congregation will be volunteering at Second Harvest Food Bank. In the coming months, Father Jim is planning to roll out a program partnering with Orange County Public Schools and St. Matthew’s Tavern to help poor families.
“I’m going to find teachers who would be willing to teach homeless families that are living in hotels how to stretch their food-stamp dollar,” he says. “The way we’re going to do that is by teaching them about nutrition and also how to use a Crock Pot. At the end of the class, each family will be receiving a Crock Pot and also recipes that they can use.”
But even with the humble philanthropies and Sunday Masses and wailing hymns, St. Dorothy’s does not earn any respect from the Orlando Diocese. The church is described as “not truly Catholic” on the diocese’s website, along with this explanation: “There are churches in Central Florida who use the term ‘catholic’ even though they have not been decreed by the local bishop, are not in communion with the Holy See and do not recognize papal authority. Therefore, attendance at a service on Sunday at one of these churches will not fulfill your Sunday obligation for participation in the Mass.”
And though Father Jim says that there’s “no disrespect, or hatred or anything; it’s just the way we approach Catholicism is where the difference is,” you get the sense that independence from the strict traditions of Roman Catholicism – and its exclusive and archaic social constraints – is what inspires the priest to get out of bed a little happier every Sunday morning.
At the Jan. 5 Mass at St. Matthew’s – “the Liturgy for the Feast of the Epiphany, or the Three Kings,” he says from the altar – Father Jim begins by voicing concerns for a member of his parish who, he says, has “given up” on life, is in the hospital with his heart operating at only 29 percent, and must lose weight if he hopes to survive. He asks God to give the man “a swift kick in the ass,” adding that we’re all aware of how fond God is of giving said ass-kicks. (His condition has improved since, Father Jim says later.)
Later, Father Jim precedes his sermon to the congregation by reminding them of his origins in the classroom. Then he proceeds to charm the group with something linking the actual science of astrology with the biblical Magi and the star of Bethlehem, as if to say religion isn’t all cryptic mythology. The star of Bethlehem is a real, provable fact. “Science and religion can go beautifully hand in hand,” he says.
“We are always looking for historical facts,” Father Anthony, assisted by his walker, stands up to say.
Despite some media assurances from Father Jim that the group is considering making St. Matthew’s its permanent home, at least some of the congregation would like something more traditional and permanent. At the end of the Jan. 5 Mass, one member named Kathleen stood up to ask everyone in the room to pray for a “permanent church,” adding that though she appreciates bar owner Matt Fassl’s generosity, there’s something missing at St. Matthew’s: a place of worship for people of all ages to call home.
“I think every child should have that opportunity,” she says. “We can’t do it in a bar.”
How St. Dorothy’s came to be in a bar is a sort of religious parable unto itself. Fassl, who is 30 and heterosexual, has worked as a (sometimes shirtless) bartender at local gay bar Savoy and worked in St. Matthew’s previous incarnation as Paradise.
“I’m not insanely religious,” says Fassl. “I went to Catholic prep school for a couple of years. I have a friend who is a medium; I met him like five years ago here [while working at Paradise]. He brought up something, and I can’t remember but it was something that sticks with you – something about my health. To the point where it kind of disturbed me.”
The patron came in a month later and started talking religion with Fassl in a language he felt he could understand.
Soon after, Fassl found himself at a St. Dorothy’s service in Winter Park, and he liked what he heard. One of the last things he heard was about the pending relocation.
“I found out that they were having to move, and I just mentioned that I have a bar,” he says.
Fassl’s intentions weren’t overtly divine. He insists that the naming of the bar – and the seeming sainting of himself – was mostly the church’s idea, and that “most of the bars around here have somebody’s name on them.”
He says his opening last month clearly benefited from the church-in-a-bar curiosity drummed up by local media, but he’s actually trying to operate the business independently of the church. In building out the historic watering hole, Fassl has recycled and repurposed many of the old bar and patio materials, and has gone the extra mile himself in trying to create an industrial “steampunk” vibe with carpet glue and glitter on the floor. (If you sniff real hard, you can almost still smell the poppers in the air, though maybe it’s just the glue.) So far, he says, business has been brisk, and he hopes to soon complete the promised beer garden in addition to opening up the front to a patio facing Mills Avenue. Fassl attends Mass at work most Sundays.
Father Jim insists that the move into St. Matthews was born of democracy within the congregation. (“Something else you won’t see in a Roman Catholic church,” he jokes.)
“When we knew we had to leave, I had a subcommittee go out searching for places. Then we had a general meeting of the congregation. I said, this is what we have to offer: We have a church in Winter Park, but we would have to do Mass later, because we couldn’t do it at 11. We could use a storefront. It would cost a lot to use a storefront. We could go down the street to the community center, which would cost us $100 a week. Then we have Matthew’s tavern that he’s offering to us. We discussed, a vote was taken and it was a unanimous vote to go to Matt’s tavern.”
He says the same democratic ideal will be used when and if the Winter Park chapel reopens. It isn’t about the building, he says. It’s about something more spiritual. The four members we spoke with – none of whom wanted to use their full names – seemed to concur; most of them followed the church from Winter Park. “If you think about it, the Last Supper was a bar,” said one.
So far, St. Dorothy’s biggest attendance was on Christmas Eve at midnight, when, Father Jim says, the group had to pull out bar seating to accommodate the 60-70 worshipers. (“Actually, for Christmas Eve, I am a typical queen; I did not use wine, I used champagne!” he laughs.) And though most of the Sunday Masses are only drawing upward of 20 people, he hopes that their presence that night helped to “plant a seed” that the church was there, was inclusive and, yes, was in a bar.
“If Christ were here today, this is what he’d be doing,” he says. “He wouldn’t be at Margaret Mary’s with all the fur coats and everything. That’s the neat part.”