About two dozen Maryknoll School alumni, students and others lined up in front of Maryknoll High School Wednesday to show support for the unmarried former director of the middle school who was dismissed in late January while she was 8 months pregnant.
Many of Michelle Gabriel’s classmates from Maryknoll’s graduating class of 1999 waved signs criticizing the school they love, saying Gabriel’s dismissal ran counter to the values they were taught — as drivers honked their horns in support.
Jeremy Irvine, 38, waved a sign that read “Maryknoll Discriminates.” Irvine said he always believed that Maryknoll “was all about being a community of love and acceptance.”
Like Irvine, fellow Class of ’99 graduate Damien Enright grew up playing Little League baseball with Gabriel in Kailua. Enright waved a sign that read, “Fired 4 Being Pregnant.”
“This isn’t the Maryknoll I remember and loved,” Enright said.
Gabriel showed up later in the rally, but said she was not allowed to comment.
Maryknoll’s decision regarding Gabriel appears to be supported by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in 2012 that federal discrimination laws do not apply to religious organizations in choosing their leaders.
In an emailed statement to the Honolulu Star- Advertiser, Fr. EJ Resinto — pastor, Sacred Heart Church & Maryknoll School and Maryknoll School Administration — said: “We understand there are people who are upset over the departure of Ms. Gabriel. Ms. Gabriel chose to leave by agreement and was represented by counsel in making that decision. We remain grateful for her many years of service and wish her all the best in her future endeavors.”
Gabriel was still listed as the middle school director on Maryknoll’s website after Wednesday’s rally.
She graduated from Maryknoll in 1999, went on to play basketball and soccer at the University of Hawaii, then returned to Maryknoll where she worked for 16 years, including the last three as director of the middle school.
Gabriel disappeared from the campus in late January with little explanation, according to several current students.
News of her departure quickly spread on Instagram, shocking the Maryknoll community and total strangers.
Jill Nunokawa, a UH civil rights counselor, does not know Gabriel but showed up on Punahou Street on Wednesday to express her support for Gabriel and objections to her departure.
“What happened to Michelle is fundamentally wrong,” Nunokawa said.
Nikos Leverenz graduated ahead of Gabriel with the Class of 1991 and also did not know her.
But Leverenz took time off from his job at the Hawaii Health & Harm Reduction Center because news of Gabriel’s departure “shocked my conscience,” he said. “All the values I learned here taught me to stand up to injustice. I’m bearing witness to Michelle’s suffering.”
Many of the Maryknoll alumni cited Maryknoll’s non-discrimination policy and said they were taught by closeted gay teachers.
Leverenz also said school officials prevented a pregnant classmate from walking at graduation, which led to a petition that resulted in the girl being allowed to accept her diploma.
“I just want them to live up to values of Maryknoll,” Leverenz said.
Several current Maryknoll students said Gabriel always supported them and inspired them as their P.E. teacher to love sports.
Khaiya Tung, a 15-year-old sophomore, said “she’s one of the reasons I started playing basketball.”
He’s now a guard on the junior varsity basketball team and said Gabriel’s departure “hurts.”
Like other current students, Noah Kitts, a 15-year-old sophomore, criticized the lack of an explanation from school officials about Gabriel’s departure.
“The school didn’t say anything,” Kitts said. “She’s always been there. It feels weird not having her here.”
Like Tung, Kitts also said Gabriel helped inspire his basketball ambitions.
He now plays power forward on the junior varsity team.
Merlinda Garma, who also graduated from Maryknoll in 1999, said she did not know Gabriel well while they were classmates.
“In high school, I was one of the dorky kids and she was one of the popular ones,” Garma said. “But she was always nice to me.”
Now Garma is a state deputy Public Defender who is appalled at injustice.
“The turnout means a lot,” Garma said. “It shows that individuals are willing to stand up for a person they do not know. This touched a nerve.”
“I’m a proud graduate of Maryknoll, and also a practicing Catholic,” Garma said.
But she called the “ideals” behind Gabriel’s departure “archaic.”
“The school threw her a baby shower because she’s literally on the eve of giving birth and then they’re like, ‘You need to leave.’ You’re also hurting the baby,” Garma said. “What did the baby do to you?”