By Sharon Roznik
Fond Du Lac Reporter (WI)
Local artist Marcella Paliekara said she sometimes felt like an island unto herself after marrying her husband, Frances Paliekara, 13 years ago.
“He was a resigned Roman Catholic priest, we lived in the Pacific Northwest, and I hadn’t yet met any other women who were married to priests,” she said.
In fact, the women she did know told her not to tell anyone, believing she had crossed into a forbidden realm by marrying a man of the cloth who once vowed to be celibate.
Things changed this past August when Paliekara started sharing her experiences on a blog she calls “The Apostles Wives’ Club.” Her intent is to reach out to women involved in relationships or married to Catholic priests.
“I wanted to know what other women were experiencing. I had a lot of questions about my own life,” Paliekara said.
She soon discovered that there were women out there who also felt they had no one to turn to. Some wrote to Paliekara privately. Others spoke openly about loving “the spiritual man.”
“Everyone’s story is so different. I don’t know exactly what direction this blog will go, but for me, this has been a long journey and an interesting one,” she said.
Calling herself Eve, in one posting, Paliekara talks about her own feelings of separation from the church: “The biggest problem for me since I married my husband has been my freedom to practice my faith. I can’t say I was a holy roller, but sometimes it was quite intense as I attended Mass every day …
“I really miss the feeling that I can freely practice all of my Catholic faith. I sometimes still go to Mass every day, and when I sit quietly in the chapels where I choose to go, I forget that I am not totally accepted. I can still feel God sometimes very powerfully, but now we have a different relationship. I don’t quite know what it is or what it means.”
She and her husband, Frances, met while he was on sabbatical in Spokane, Wash., during a break from his missionary work in Africa.
“We started up a friendship, and when he went back to Africa, I went there to work for the American Embassy,” she said. “After some time, we just decided we cared a lot about each other and came back to the United States and got married.”
As a faithful Catholic, Paliekara said the choice was difficult for her. Young girls are taught never to think about priests in that way, as a man who could have a relationship with a woman, or even as a human, a person beyond the role. She thought about Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth, and how she served as the preacher’s faithful partner for decades.
“In almost every other religion, ministers are allowed to marry, and their wives are revered,” she noted. “But women who marry Catholic priests face rejection from their family, their friends and the community.”
Some women and priests keep their relationships hidden and continue to live for years in secret. Even in today’s society, women who have relationships with priests are still thought of as a seductress or temptress, Paliekara said.
“From my family, there was some negativity and, later, acceptance. My mother was very old when I got married, and she was fine with it, but my husband’s family took a long time accepting us,” Paliekara explained.
David Gawlik, a former Catholic priest from Mequon and editor of Corpus Report, a publication that promotes a renewed and inclusive priesthood, said Marcella’s blog is unique because it provides, for the first time, a voice for women who love priests.
Often, these wives feel like they are branded with the proverbial “scarlet letter” because of their marriage to a priest, Gawlik noted.
“Marcella affirms the loving relationship between married priests and their wives. She eloquently indicates that they are a circle of women whose lives were changed by a relationship with a Roman Catholic priest,” he said.
According to Corpus.org, there are more than 20,000 married Catholic priests in the United States. Gawlik estimates that about 400 of them are living in Wisconsin, although there are no clear statistics.
“It’s not something the Catholic Church wants to make public,” he said.
Some of the married priests continue to practice at faith communities like that of Jesus our Shepherd Community Church in Allenton, referred to as an inclusive faith community.
Paliekara said she chose the name “Apostles Wives” to honor the men who are called to serve Jesus, including married Catholic priests,
“Once you are ordained as a priest, you are always ordained. I think it’s a great sorrow for most priests who leave the church. It’s a terrible burden for them,” she said.
Columnist MJ Harris of Florida, a contributor to the blog, calls herself an “out-of-the-box Catholic.” She met her husband Jim in 1968, when she was a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps and he was a Catholic Navy chaplain from the Chicago Diocese. They married in 1974 and enjoyed 29 years together until his death in 2002.
In 2006, she married Joe Halpin, a former Jesuit priest.
For her, writing for the Apostles Wives’ Club is a form of therapy, she said.
“We are definitely unheard voices, and we are as diversified as a garden of flowers. There is no way to package us all together. However, we have a common denominator. We are wives of Roman Catholic priests, which of course, we are not supposed to be. It is time for strong voices, strong knowledge of who we are, and a rightful place in history,” Harris said.
Paliekara said she and her husband are members of an Episcopal church, and Frances serves as a non-denominational chaplain. Yet she still attends Catholic Mass, sometimes daily.
“What I love is being present in the liturgy. My faith is not in a hierarchy, or mandated rules. I was taught to love Jesus Christ, the sacraments and the church,” Paliekara said.
She hopes the stories on her blog can someday be compiled in a book she plans to call “Sacred Stories from The Apostles Wives’ Club.”