Father William Grau was the first Black priest for the Diocese of Buffalo in New York and Sophie Legocki was a white nursery school teacher at a parish in Lake Erie. They met at a church in Lackawanna in the 1950s and fell in love. But their romance, and the child that resulted, remained a secret until recently.
“Sophie loved my father. She just loved the man,” Joe Steele, the couple’s son, tells 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 met in 1955, when they bonded as he helped her shovel snow in Lackawanna. Their love grew, but fearing that the racist and religious boundaries of the time meant they could not be together publicly, the duo kept their love a secret for years.
Author Lisa Gentry shares the couple’s story in a new book, titled Forbidden Love, after working alongside Steele, 62, to bring the secret love affair to light.
“When Joe first told me his story, the first thing that came to my mind is, ‘This is a universal story,’ ” Gentry, of Washington, D.C., tells PEOPLE.
“This is a love story about two people, about the right to love,” adds Gentry. “One happened to be a Black priest, one happened to be a white nun, and it happened to be in the segregated ’50s. It’s a universal story that’s just as applicable today as it was more than 50 years ago.”
Legocki eventually left the order and moved in with Grau. But the pair did not live as man and wife — they told everyone Legocki was simply Grau’s housekeeper. She gave birth to Steele in 1957 and she and Grau placed the boy for adoption.
“It wasn’t something that was in dark corners. They owned their love,” Gentry says. “They lived together essentially, almost man and wife, with her as his housekeeper after Joe was born. This is a love that endured, a love of the ages.”
They were together for about nine years before Grau died in 1964.
The death marked the end of the couple’s story, until years later when Steele tracked down his birth mother in 1991. Steele was raised by his adoptive family in Cincinnati and only began to seek information about his adoption after his brother pushed him to do so as an adult.
“She lived up in Buffalo and I lived in Hudson Valley. Our time that we saw each other was limited,” Steele tells PEOPLE. “The way she always talked about my father with love really let me know that I was a love child. That was probably the most transformative for me, getting that love reinforced from her.”
Steele visited Legocki repeatedly over the years, piecing together the details of Grau and Legocki’s love story. They remained close until Legocki’s death in 2007. Her family didn’t learn about Steele until then, and Grau’s family, of Cleveland, only learned about Steele after the book’s release last year.
“This is a love story. This has been an exciting journey and a very reflective journey,” Steele says. “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.”