Rev. William Grau was a black Catholic priest. Sophie Legocki was a white nun. They fell in love in the segregated ‘50s defying all racial and religious boundaries, and now, the son they kept a secret for years is telling their story in a book titled “Forbidden Love.”
Joe Steele, a 62-year-old Harvard business graduate, lived a good life with his adoptive family in Cincinnati. He never thought of seeking information about his birth parents, until his adoptive brother encouraged him to find the answers he knew Steele was secretly craving.
He tracked down his birth mother in 1991; she lived in Buffalo.
Upon meeting her, Steele learned from Sophie Legocki that the love story of his parents was unusual, admirable, and full of courage.
But most importantly, he learned that they had good reasons to give him up for adoption in the first place.
William Grau was the first black priest for the Diocese of Buffalo in New York, and Sophie Legocki was a teacher at a nursery school at a parish in Lake Erie.
They met at a church in Lackawanna when Grau started helping Legocki to shovel snow in the mornings, and gradually, they fell in love.
Both were aware of the racial and religious boundaries they would be crossing, but eventually, the pair succumbed to their feelings.
“The courage is just phenomenal,” Steele said of his parents to Cleveland.com. “They really saw this as blessed in the eyes of God despite the church.”
At some point, Legocki left the order and moved in with Grau, but they kept their relationship a secret saying she was his housekeeper. Grau gave birth to Joe in 1957, and they gave him in adoption to Florence and William Steele.
For Steele, it was a relief to learn he was a product of real love.
“Sophie loved my father. She just loved the man,” Joe told PEOPLE.
“Once she told me about him being a priest, her being a nun and also him being Black and she being white, those two reasons separately and jointly made it clear that they weren’t in a position to keep me. That’s why I was put up for adoption.”
Grau and Legocki were together for nine years until his death in 1964. Their love story remained buried until Steele reconnected with Legocki and dug up the details that are now of public knowledge in the book “Forbidden Love,” which he wrote alongside Lisa Jones Gentry.
Steele visited his mother regularly until her passing in 2007. Her family didn’t know about his existence until the day of her funeral, and Grau’s family in Cleveland only found about Joe after the book came out in 2018.
“That’s part of the cost of forbidden love – there’s those pressures to keep it a secret,” Steele said. “It leaves you wondering, was it worth it? … [Legocki] did not share any regret from making that decision, which meant a lot to me.”
Steele has now reconnected with Grau’s side of the family as well, and they welcomed him with surprise but open arms.
“This is a love story. This has been an exciting journey and a very reflective journey,” Steele stated. “I’m relieved and really joyful now. The story is told with a lot of happiness and love. I feel like both Sophie and Father Grau are smiling down.”