When Brenda Sanders met her future husband George, she was happy to learn he could not be a Protestant pastor because he had been divorced.
“You see the pressures put on a pastor’s wife, to look a certain way, to act a certain way,” in the Protestant faith, she said. “So I was just pleased because I never wanted to be a pastor’s wife.”
Fast forward into 34 years of marriage and Sanders, along with only about 125 other women in the United States, is in fact a pastor’s wife — married to a Catholic priest. According to the 2015 book, “Keeping the Vow: The Untold Story of Married Catholic Priests,” by D. Paul Sullins, only 10 U.S. dioceses have more than one married priest and only three-quarters have ever had even one.
Through a special provision, men who have served as ordained pastors in other Christian denominations and have converted to Catholicism can request acceptance to the priesthood from the Vatican (See “So you know”).
In Arkansas, there are three married diocesan priests: Father George Sanders, pastor of St. Mary of the Springs Church in Hot Springs and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Glenwood; recently ordained Father Norman McFall, associate pastor for Hispanic ministry at Christ the King Church in Fort Smith and a hospital chaplain at Mercy Hospital; and Father Alan Rosenau, who retired in 2013 as a hospital chaplain and associate pastor in Hot Springs.
While all three are committed to God, their wives have also made the lifelong sacrifice to share their spouses with the Church.
All three women grew up in Protestant faiths, their husbands following different religious paths. Father Sanders served as a Charismatic Episcopal priest for three years and joined the Catholic Church in 2000. He was ordained Aug. 3, 2013.
“I still have to say today that I have God’s grace and I have to have patience, because it’s very difficult,” Brenda Sanders, 56, said. “He’s no longer just my husband, he belongs to the Church.”
In November 1988, Father Alan Rosenau, previously an Anglican priest, was ordained in the Catholic Church, 17 years after marrying Joanne (pronounced “Johnny”).
“It took them awhile to realize who I was because I wasn’t going to put myself out there. I thought what if people didn’t like it? So I’ll just be a member of the church,” Joanne Rosenau, 71, said. “They just kind of found out by osmosis.”
Laura McFall, 56, is just beginning the journey. After Norman spent years as a Freewill Baptist minister in Pine Bluff, the couple converted to Catholicism in 1999. While in the diaconate program, it was suggested that he think about the priesthood, something he did not realize was available to him, but ultimately had the call. She said she had “no hesitation about him taking this road.”
McFall received her master’s degree in theology alongside her husband at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana. It was the first time the seminary had a married priest as a resident seminarian.
“It was just what I needed to have a firmer foundation in the Catholic faith,” she said. “They form priests, but I feel like I was formed too as a priest’s wife.”
Much like the spouses of soldiers, doctors and police officers, when duty calls, the family, the marriage, the best laid plans are put aside.
“I struggle the most with the loneliness. Sometimes with the loneliness even when he’s here … He carries the weight of all of this emotionally, physically, spiritually,” Sanders said, who is a kindergarten teacher at St. Luke Episcopal School in Hot Springs. But usually, “God gives me a friend who will come to me and say, ‘I’ve really been praying for you and I want to tell you thank you for sharing your husband with us.’”
Their time as a married couple is “quality over quantity,” which can mean anything from grilling to attending the River Rhapsody Concert Series in Little Rock.
But at Church functions, Sanders usually gives him space with his parishioners because “he is their pastor. He’s mine when we get home.”
Unlike Protestant churches, priests’ wives are not given a specific church role.
“It enabled me to find my own way, my own place, my own callings and gifts in the Church which I like rather than having something pre-ordained for me to slide into,” Rosenau said.
The couple’s children were 3, 12 and 16 during his 1988 ordination and he was still there for them, even coaching one of his son’s basketball teams.
“The kids I don’t think ever felt deprived,” adding that family support was crucial.
“I’m going to tell you straight out, he always seemed to put the church first. But I did not have a problem with that,” she said. “I was very, very close to my family who lived here … It wasn’t like we were alone.”
McFall, who is looking for a paid ministry position, said she learned what it was like for her husband to be gone during his formation.
“Norman has a natural instinct for checking on me and spending time with me, texting me during the day. There may come a time we need to sit down and think about it more,” she said.
Rather than the lack of time with her husband, who was ordained May 28, moving has been the most challenging.
“Change is not really my thing. I think I’ve adapted,” McFall said. “I feel God gave me special grace.”
The wives all agree that parishioners have been supportive of their unique circumstance. Rosenau and Sanders said there have been a few throughout the years who have said they cannot get used to having a priest who is married, but it usually comes from a place of confusion rather than malice.
“That was the thing I feared,” Rosenau said. “But you know not one time was anybody ever anything but kind.”
While their presence may bring up the debate about allowing priests to marry, the issue is complex. For Latin rite priests, celibacy is a discipline that has been practiced for 2,000 years.
“I’ve known priests that I thought are just kind of lonely. I know they have their parishioners and all but at the end of the day it’s just you,” Rosenau said. “I’m not saying all priests should marry, I think some people are called to be celibate but for those that don’t feel that they are, I feel they should have that option.”
McFall said she’s in awe of the single seminarians in Arkansas committed to celibacy in service to God.
“Somebody mentioned you can be the example for priests having wives, and I thought no, that’s not it. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s just what God has done in our lives,” she said. “I’m all for priests being single; just from observing Norman a short time with being a priest, it’s so time consuming. You have to be devoted to the people, I can’t imagine trying to balance all that with children, your wife.”
While each of the women has had to face challenges as the wife of a priest, they know that as a couple, they are following God’s call.
“In my heart, I love God with my whole being and that’s what God has called my husband to do and God called me to support him,” Sanders said.
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