Formerly Married Men Find New Role As Priests

Patriot Ledger (Quincy, MA)
February 28, 1998

Days before the Rev. Andrew M. Meehan was to become pastor, he had to perform the marriage ceremony at the wedding of his son. When he told his parishioners, they just looked at him and wondered, "Am I hearing right?"

After all, the Rev. Meehan is a Roman Catholic priest, and the church's priests are supposed to be celibate and unmarried. But the pastor of Mary, Queen of Peace Parish in Salem, N.H., was previously married. In fact, he has four children, ranging in age from 33 to 38, and eight grandchildren, ages 9 months to 15 years. A ninth grandchild is expected in May.

When the Rev. Meehan's marriage fell apart, he got divorced, received an annulment from the Catholic Church and attended a seminary to become a priest. Today he is one of three priests in the Diocese of Manchester who chose the priesthood after becoming a widower or getting a divorce and annulment.

In the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, several previously married men also serve as priests, including the Rev. Stirling B. MacDonald who was at St. Mary of the Nativity in Scituate before moving to a parish on the North Shore. He is a widower.

Of the 15 men currently attending the seminary in the Diocese of Manchester, one is divorced.

"We need all kinds of candidates who have a lot to offer to the church," said the Rev. Marc F. Guillemette, co-director of vocation for the Manchester diocese.

"These men bring experience of life, of raising a family, and they bring the background of working in some career."

Before being considered as candidates for the priesthood, formerly married men must receive an annulment, the process by which the church nullifies a marriage. Also, they must not have children under age 18 whom they are still caring for, said the Rev. Guillemette.

The Rev. Guillemette said the Catholic Church does not have a law against divorced men or widowers becoming priests.

"When it comes to candidates who are widowers, most dioceses are open to that," he said. "In the case of annulment, every diocese is different. Some are more open than others."

The Rev. Meehan has been a priest for five years. He was married for more than 20 years before getting divorced. He got an annulment in 1983. After his children were well on their own, he started thinking about what he was going to do with his life. He said the religious life entered his mind. He had previously joined the Augustinian order. Before joining the religious life a second time, he worked in the construction business with his brothers for almost 30 years.

The Rev. Meehan said his children were surprised when he told them he was going to study for the priesthood.

"They said, 'You're going to do what? Can you do that?' They were a little skeptical at first, but then they became very supportive," he said.

Esther Fitzgerald, a parishioner of Mary, Queen of Peace Parish for 20 years, is not bothered by the fact that the pastor was married.

"I'm glad my mother brought me up with an open mind," she said. "I think it's fabulous. When you talk to him about family problems, he actually understands the problems of being married.

"He knows the ins and outs and ups and downs and the struggles of family life," she said.

The Rev. Meehan talks to his children once a week. He tries to see his family three to four times a year. He also visits a daughter in Ireland at least once a year. In addition to performing the wedding of his youngest son, the Rev. Meehan has baptized two of his eight grandchildren. He will also baptize the child his daughter is expecting in May.

He admits it felt strange performing the wedding of his son.

"It felt odd being up there. It was a strange feeling doing the wedding of our own son, but it was a good feeling, too," he said.

Edward J. Vanorny, 52, is following in the footsteps of the Rev. Meehan. He was married 10 years and had two daughters. Seventeen years ago, he got divorced and sought an annulment. Today he is studying to become a priest at Pope John XXIII National Seminary in Weston. He will be ordained in June and will serve in the Diocese of Rapid City, S.D.

"I can't wait," he said. "It's a mixture of expectancy, anticipation and anxiety."

Vanorny said his daughters were happy when he told them about his plans to join the priesthood.

"They were jubilant. They said, 'Now we can call you father for real,' " Vanorny said.

He was ordained a transitional deacon last May and is serving as a deacon at St. Michael Church in North Andover.


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