COAL TOWNSHIP — In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 classic “The Scarlet Letter,” Hester Prynne is punished for being pregnant out of wedlock and forced to wear a scarlet “A” on her clothing.
On Friday, as Naiad Reich packed up her belongings at her classroom at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional School, she left a copy of the book sitting on her desk.
“I feel like I’m a rewriting of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ at this point, just minus the affair,” Reich said.
Reich, 31, of Coal Township, learned Friday she would no longer be employed at the Catholic school; she said she was told of the decision three days after informing Sister Mary Anne Bednar, high school principal and administrator, that she and her significant other, Matt Graboski, 32, are expecting a baby in June.
The high school English and creative writing teacher and yearbook adviser said after being together almost four years, she and Graboski made the decision to start a family and planned the pregnancy. She said her due date would fall at the end of the school year, meaning she would need no time off.
Knowing some people at the school were aware of her plans, she decided to inform Bednar Tuesday.
“Her response, honestly, is one that will sit with me for a very long time, because she was very displeased,” Reich said. “She said it would be a problem and she had to contact the diocese.”
Bednar, who did not respond to a call or email on Monday seeking comment, contacted the Diocese of Harrisburg Wednesday, according to Reich. The diocese had two questions for Reich: Did she and Graboski live together? And did they have plans to immediately marry?
The couple does live together, and Reich said planning for the baby takes precedence over marriage at the moment. She said Bednar responded that having no plan to get married “was going to be a huge problem.”
Thursday was quiet, but on Friday Reich was called to Bednar’s office, where she was told with no definite marriage plans for the very near future, the diocese told Bednar to let Reich go.
Reich wasn’t shocked, considering Bednar’s original reaction.
“She wasn’t happy, and I knew the diocese was even less happy, if that were possible,” she said.
Rachel Bryson, executive director of public relations for the Diocese of Harrisburg, said she spoke with education department personnel and was told they are unable to comment on personnel matters due to legal reasons.
School policies and regulations detailed on the diocese’s website offer no specific language regarding a teacher becoming pregnant out of wedlock, but of the 10 causes for dismissal of a professional employee, the first listed is “immorality.”
Bryson was asked by The News-Item to seek further information on the diocese’s definition of immorality or if there is any specific language in teacher contracts regarding pregnancy out of wedlock. She had not responded by press time Monday.
Reich said she was let go under the immorality cause, alleging she was told her decision to have a baby and not follow through with marriage was “immoral based on the Catholic Church.” She said she was told she was part of a Catholic institution and had to follow its beliefs, despite not being Catholic herself.
Upon her hiring in 2017, Reich said she was not asked to disclose personal information such as if she lived with a significant other. Apart from her educational background and qualification requirements, the only concern expressed to Reich was about her religious faith. Without belonging to the Catholic Church, a letter of recommendation from a minister was required.
Through her own research, Reich said she learned she has seven days to appeal the diocese’s decision, and she plans to do so. She’s not sure, however, whether she’ll represent herself or seek legal counsel.
Reich referenced a section of the student handbook addressing students becoming pregnant out of wedlock that states while Lourdes doesn’t condone the actions, “there is a realization that this situation does occur,” and that pregnant students are permitted to continue their education in a “supportive environment.” Special arrangements for continuance of education when the female is no longer able to attend classes are offered.
Reich said she’s had co-workers reach out to her stating their disapproval of the decision. But Friday was particularly hard as she said goodbye to her students.
“Honestly, they’re devastated; they really are,” said Reich. “I saw them on Friday and the ones I saw were bawling. I’ve received messages from them. They’re very upset and their parents are angry.”
She said she already misses her students “more than I think they can ever understand,” noting “Sister Mary Anne and the diocese, with their decision, have made me feel demoralized, like I have done something wrong.”
Reflecting on the ordeal, there is a message Reich believes she has delivered.
“I have taken pride in the fact that I have taught the kids to always stand up for what they believe in, even if they are alone and by themselves,” she said. “They have done that, and I am so proud of them.”