It was a sunny autumn afternoon in 2005 when about 30 members of the local clergy gathered on the steps of the Bexar County Courthouse to express their opposition to Proposition 2, a provision which would amend the Texas constitution to define marriage as consisting “only of the union of one man and one woman.”
Among those who took to the podium to speak against the measure was Father Eddie Bernal, a Catholic priest who, despite being chastised by his superiors, stood up for LGBT rights throughout his career.
Proposition 2 passed and became the law of the land. However, Bernal’s advocacy was not dimmed. “He was something else,” Rev. Ilene Dunn, the former pastor of Madison Square Presbyterian Church, told Out In SA. Dunn says she would often see Bernal at seminars and meetings where LGBT rights were on the agenda. The two became friends.
Bernal died on May 29, leaving behind a legion of mourners who loved and respected him. He was widely eulogized in the press and social media.
Writing in the San Antonio Express-News, Carey Clack said, “The clerical collar didn’t make the man. He enhanced it. The power of his moral suasion and clarity didn’t come from what was around his neck but what flowed from his character.”
Another Express-News columnist, Elaine Ayala, wrote, “Bernal [was] a popular San Antonio priest whose friendships, ecumenism and interfaith spirit took his impact far beyond his parish boundaries.”
While much of Bernal’s work within the larger community was outlined in news reports, not much was written about his support of LGBT rights.
For over 20 years, Bernal presided over masses for Dignity San Antonio, an organization for LGBT Catholics. For the last 15 of those years, those masses were held at St. Ann’s Catholic Church.
“He was always our advocate,” says Deb Myers, a member of Dignity, who with her wife Nickie Valdez was an early organizer for the group. “He was a very passionate man who loved his community and worked diligently to create a loving church which was inclusive of all people.”
In 2010, San Antonio Auxiliary Bishop Oscar Cantu ordered St. Ann’s to stop hosting its weekly mass for Dignity because he said it sent “conflicting messages about the Church’s official teaching concerning the proper celebration of the Eucharist and living an active homosexual lifestyle.”
“When we got asked to leave St. Ann’s, Father Eddie went with us to see the bishop to protest but it did no good,” says Valdez. “He continued to care about our community and still ministered to us, albeit from a distance.”
“We need to provide good preaching and good teaching to this community,” Bernal told the Express-News at the time. “I have met some of the most wonderful people in my life in Dignity. They’ve changed my life for the better. And I’ve learned so much.”
When he could, Bernal continued to administer the sacraments, including the last rites, to his LGBT followers. He was often called on to officiate at funeral masses.
Local attorney Bill Goodman, told Out In SA that Bernal was the co-officiant at the 2005 funeral mass of his partner of 25 years, Bob Biasiolli, who had been friends with Bernal when they were growing up.
Goodman recalls the other officiant, Rev. Patrick Guidon, who at the time was pastor of Our Lady of Grace, where the mass was held, came up to him after the service, hugged him and said, “I love you Bill,” and expressed his sympathy for Goodman’s loss.
Goodman corresponded with Bernal after the funeral, telling him about the compassion and welcome extended to him by Guidon at the funeral mass. Goodman says Bernal replied by saying he hoped it was the start of the church’s more widespread acceptance of gay and lesbian couples.
Five years later, Bernal was the principal officiant at the funeral mass for Roberto Flores, husband of local LGBT activist Dan Graney. Flores, a former Catholic priest, was a founder of Stonewall Democrats of San Antonio, sat on the board of Equality Texas, and was the first openly gay chairman of the Bexar County Democratic Party.
After learning of Bernal’s passing, Graney said, “Father Eddie was a loving advocate for God’s life-changing and life-saving welcome of all people.”
Video by Anthony Medrano.