Tuesday, November 06, 2007

What do you want me to say — ‘I love you, Father?’

by Brad McElhinny
Charleston Daily Mail
November 6, 2007

Spectacular news brought a tangle of complications.

Roger Switzer pulled aside a young woman, Jacquie Terhaar, and said, "I think I'm in love with you."

At first, she was speechless.

Roger Switzer was a Catholic priest.

Finally, Jacquie spoke.

"What do you want me to say -- ‘I love you, Father?' "

He said, "Well, do you?"

"Yes," she replied.

Their exchange in the conference room of a summer camp for the Catholic Youth Organization of Rochester, N.Y., kicked off a year of internal, professional and religious struggle -- and then 24 years of marriage.

Every love story has complications. Because Roger's professional and spiritual calling ruled out marriage, theirs had more than most.

Father Switzer had to ask himself a lot of questions: What is right with the church? What is right with my relationship with this woman? How do you reconcile your love of a woman with your love of God?

Jacquie Switzer, now an assistant principal at Hayes Middle School in St. Albans, has written about the difficult choices in a new, self-published book "Life With ‘Father:' One Man's Journey Into Light . . . And Love." The 132-page memoir is available through outlets such as Amazon.com and Borders. Switzer published the book with the help of a company called AuthorHouse.

Back in 1965, the couple dared not breathe a word to anyone -- much less publish a book.

At that moment in the conference room, they shared a hug.

"Then we went into kind of a robotic state," Jacquie said. "We had to carry on the business of the camp."

Their love had built quietly.

Roger, 32, had been ordained as a Catholic priest in 1959, had worked as an assistant pastor at St. Mary's Parish in Horseheads, N.Y., and then was transferred in 1964 to become director for the Catholic Youth Organization. All signs pointed to a life in the priesthood.

Jacquie, 24, was a Latin teacher at Our Lady of Mercy High School, her own alma mater in Rochester. She accepted a summer job as director of nearby Camp Stella Morris, which was run by the Catholic Youth Organization.

And that was how she first got to know Roger -- from across a desk.

"You felt like you knew him so long, having just met. He was down to earth. He had a great sense of humor, a genuine love of people. It all came out in a very simple way. He would look nice but was never overly concerned with worldly things. You immediately felt like he liked you."

Initially, it was all business. Jacquie took the camp job in the fall, received a business letter from Roger in March, visited briefly in April to discuss progress in preparing for the summer and then showed up for her job as the summer began.

At the camp, she and Roger would have informal managerial meetings. They would share a coffee and talk casually.

"That essentially was our dating time or getting to know one another time," she said. "It was just this relating."

Once, when a chaplain -- who was a mutual friend -- came to visit the camp, he commented, "You have to be careful. Jacquie is the kind of person that you could fall in love with."

Roger thought: "Too late; already have."

The first people Jacquie and Roger told were her mother and father. They met at her parents' cottage not far from the camp. The couple explained that they were in love, that they planned to get married -- and that there was just one hangup.

Her father commented, "Yep, you do have a problem."

And then, as the summer camp came to a close, Roger returned to his organization's headquarters in Washington, D.C., while Jacquie returned to her teaching job at Our Lady of Mercy.

Their courting continued through the U.S. mail. In a series of letters to Jacquie, Roger described his conflict over how to move forward, his initial hope that the Catholic Church might change its policy on the celibacy of priests and his revelations, first to close friends and then to church hierarchy, about his dilemma.

Excerpts from the letters form the heart of Jacquie's book. She was inspired to write the book a couple of years ago after digging out the letters and reading them a day at a time, in the order that they had originally arrived.

"I saw this stream of a struggle, an anguish over this decision," said Jacquie, who is now 65. "I thought this would be a great story."

Roger spent about a year trying to untangle the situation. He still hoped to somehow stay in the priesthood while also marrying.

"There is no doubt in my mind my love for you," he told Jacquie. "Now the question is what do I need to do."

Friends in the church intervened on his behalf, asking the hierarchy what could be done. Roger met with a Cardinal in Baltimore to discuss the matter, but it was discouraging. He read books like, "Priestly Celibacy and Maturity."

For Jacquie, the situation was simpler. While Roger struggled over his decision, she just had to wait for him to make it.

She told him, "I don't want you to come back and say 10 years from now, ‘You made me leave the priesthood.' "

As the months passed, there was little progress to allow Roger to have life both ways. Finally, word came from the church: We have done everything we can. If you have made your decision, you have done everything you can. You need to leave.

"Roger was essentially fired," Jacquie said.

He still boldly predicted that within 10 years, the church would reverse its policy on priestly celibacy.

The couple married Sept. 3, 1966, in a private ceremony at her parents' house. Twelve people attended.

A friend from graduate school helped Roger find a new job in West Virginia. The Switzers moved to Charleston, where he became the director for Family Service of West Virginia. In later years, he worked as executive director of the Community Council of the Kanawha Valley and then was the director of the Charleston Housing Authority for 19 years.

The couple had six children -- Andrew, Michael, Anne Marie, David, John and Richard. The boys were all named for priests who had helped them through their ordeal.

Roger and Jacquie never regretted the difficult decision they had made.

"To me, it's awesome you can participate in the creation of a human being, and the commitment of yourself body and soul to another human being is awesome," Jacquie said.

"It's a gift from God -- the participation of human beings in the creation of individuals."

The family remained Catholic. They attended St. Agnes in Kanawha City, Sacred Heart in Charleston and Blessed Sacrament in South Charleston, largely depending on where in the Kanawha Valley they happened to live at the time. Roger didn't tell his fellow parishioners about his time as a priest unless they happened to ask.

Even as he moved on with his life, Roger had remaining issues with the church. He never received a response from his petition for a dispensation from his vow of celibacy. He also wanted his marriage to be regularized. He hoped to be assured of a Christian burial, and felt there was no guarantee given the strife the family had been through.

He did not receive a written response, but he did get an answer.

In 1990, Roger was diagnosed with colon cancer. Treatment provided no cure. He resigned from his job at the housing authority in September and died in late November. He was 57.

His worries about how he and his family would be buried were put to rest. He had a Catholic service at St. Patrick's Cemetery. The eulogy was given by a friend who had been with the couple when they first decided to wed. He, too, had left the priesthood to marry.

To Jacquie, the funeral was a sign of how far people had come. Although the church still had not changed its policies, people had become far more accepting. It was a stark contrast from the secret they had to keep when they first confessed their love for each other.

In the limousine on the way to the service for the former priest Jacquie commented to her six children, "Here we are headed to St. Patrick's Cemetery, and nobody really cares."

No comments: