LaShundra Allen says she was denied a job cleaning the home of a Catholic priest in Collierville, Tennessee, which is a suburb of Memphis, because of the color of her skin.
Allen works for a cleaning company called Master Building Service Contractors. A co-worker, who had been responsible for the cleaning of the church and was quitting, brought Allen to the Church of the Incarnation in Collierville, Tennessee in early May for training as her replacement.
But a church staffer told Allen she could not clean the rectory used by Reverend Jacek Kowal because the pastor’s German Shepherd didn’t like black people. The parish employee reportedly stated that the “dog is kinda racist.”
The church denies that Allen’s ethnicity was a factor in her being denied entry to the rectory. In a statement shared on the church’s Facebook page, Bishop David P. Talley said that the dog tends to become aggressive around strangers and that everyone involved was merely concerned with making sure the cleaning company employees were not injured. The bishop called the parish employee’s choice of words “highly unfortunate and imprecise.”
Heavy also spoke with Allen’s employer, Nick Signaigo of Master Building Service Contractors. Signaigo is a member of the Church of the Incarnation and said that he felt that the diocese should have addressed the situation immediately.
Allen’s attorney also confirmed to Heavy that they are “considering their next steps” following the public letter from the Bishop.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. LaShundra Allen Was Introduced as the New Housekeeper & Her Coworker Offered to Put the Pastor’s Dog in a Crate
The former housekeeper for Father Jacek Kowal’s home was a white woman named Emily Weaver. She brought LaShundra Allen to the rectory with her on May 3 and introduced her to the priest’s secretary as her replacement.
The Bishop stated in the letter that the two women “arrived unannounced that morning to the parish office.” But Nick Signaigo told Heavy in a phone interview that Weaver cleaned the rectory every Tuesday and Friday morning, and stressed that the parish staffers knew exactly when she was coming. He dismissed the idea that Allen and Weaver were “unannounced.”
Staffers prevented the two women from entering the rectory. They said it was because the priest’s dog, a German Shepherd named Ceasar, was outside of his crate and didn’t like strangers. Weaver offered to put the dog inside his crate because the animal was used to seeing her.
According to the letter published by the Bishop of the Diocese of Memphis, two parish staff members went to the church to ask Father Kowal if he was comfortable with Weaver putting the dog in the crate. The letter explained, “Fr. Kowal told his staff that the women should not enter the rectory and try to place the dog in a crate without him present, as he was concerned that they would be at risk of being bitten. While the current housekeeper had been properly introduced to the dog by Fr. Kowal, he was not able to leave at that time to introduce his dog to the replacement employee. Fr. Kowal’s response would have been the same with respect to any new employee or visitor unknown by the dog, regardless of race or ethnicity.”
2. The Parish Staffer Told LaShundra Allen That the Dog Doesn’t Like Black People
After the parish staffer returned from speaking with Father Kowal, LaShundra Allen and Emily Weaver were then told that they could not enter the home because the dog did not like black people. Kowal’s secretary stated that the dog was “kinda racist,” according to a letter from the Bishop of Memphis.
Allen’s attorney, Maureen Holland, sent a complaint to the diocese. She argued that her client had been turned away on the basis of race, that Father Kowal had not made any effort to meet Allen, and requested some sort of settlement. According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Holland stated that the language used by the parish staff “most strongly suggests that Father Jacek and his staff did not want an African American woman cleaning his home.”
Allen told the Washington Post that she believes the statement about the priest’s dog was just an excuse. “Dogs can’t see color. Dogs can only be taught who to be around and who not to be around.” She also told the Commercial Appeal that she felt the need to speak up in part because the church also operates a school.
“I believe they need to lose their jobs. I don’t see how they can be around — and mind you that school has black kids in that school, kids of various colors in that school. How are you OK teaching kids of color but not OK with someone of color cleaning your house?”
3. Father Kowal Says His Dog Had a Bad Experience With an African-American Stranger Years Ago
Father Jacek Kowal denies the accusation of racism. In a statement to Fox affiliate WHBQ-TV, Kowal stressed that his German Shepherd had a “bad experience with a stranger who happened to be African American” a few years ago and that his concern had simply been for LaShundra Allen’s safety.
The public letter published by the Bishop of Memphis reiterated the claim that the dog was protective of the home and skittish around strangers. Bishop Talley wrote that the parish staff was “aware that the dog was very protective of his home, and there was a risk that the dog would bite a stranger entering the rectory without his owner present. The staff were aware that years ago the dog had been threatened by a person who happened to be African American, causing the dog to be somewhat more agitated initially around strangers with darker skin, until the dog gets to know them. The replacement employee who was planning to enter the rectory was an African-American person the dog had never met.”
Allen told Fox13 that she does not buy that excuse. She told the TV station, “I didn’t even know what to say. They were acting like I was just supposed to be ok with it. Joking around with it, and I’m just like, ‘That’s not ok. You just told me you didn’t want me in your house because I’m colored skinned.”
4. LaShundra Allen’s Employer Ended the Contract to Clean Father Kowal’s Rectory & Says the Church Should Have Addressed the Incident Immediately
Heavy spoke with the owner of Master Building Service Contractors, Nick Signaigo, over the phone. He said that LasShundra Allen has been working for the company for about three years and described her as a “great employee” who does “fantastic work” and that she is a “solid individual.”
Signaigo said he grew up in the Memphis area and has been a long-time parishioner at the Church of the Incarnation. He said Allen and Weaver called him separately to tell him what had happened at the rectory that day. Signaigo described the situation as “surprising,” “unacceptable” and “disappointing.” He instructed the women to write statements that he could deliver to the Bishop.
Signaigo said he expected Bishop Talley to respond and address the situation quickly. But instead, the women’s complaints went unanswered for weeks. Signaigo said the silence only served to further upset everyone involved, and eventually led to Allen’s decision to hire an attorney.
Signaigo told Heavy, “I’m not trying to put a bad light on the Church or the Diocese. But what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong… This is 2019. You don’t talk to people that way.”
Signaigo added that it was important for him to defend his employees and support them, stating that Allen and Weaver had “no reason to lie” about what had happened. He stated a few times that he wished Bishop Talley had responded promptly, started an investigation immediately and that the situation could have been handled privately.
Master Building Service Contractors ended its contract to clean Father Kowal’s rectory following the incident. Signaigo’s children previously attended the church’s school, but he has since decided to put them in a different school.
5. The Diocese of Memphis Said the Investigation Had Been Completed & Concluded There Was No Wrongdoing; Allen’s Attorney Says They Are Considering Next Steps
The Catholic Diocese of Memphis says it conducted an investigation and concluded that the “claims of racial bias and discrimination are unfounded, and that Fr. Kowal did nothing wrong.”
Bishop David P. Talley wrote in a letter shared to Facebook that the diocese ruled that the parish staff and Father Kowal had simply been concerned that the dog could hurt LaShundra Allen and Emily Weaver and therefore had not acted inappropriately.
He wrote in the conclusion of the letter, “As bishop, I wish to emphasize that all human persons are created in the image of the one God and enjoy an equal dignity. Therefore, all forms of racial discrimination are sinful and wrong. What occurred at Incarnation, however, simply was not a case of racial discrimination.”
LaShundra Allen’s attorney, Maureen Holland, stated in an email with Heavy that the case is not over. She wrote, “We are disappointed with the response by the Diocese. They have not responded directly to our clients, but rather made a public statement. Our clients are considering their next steps.”