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Chronicles from the Vineyard: Don and Pat Fromm

HERE WE ARE LORD. WHAT’S NEXT? Don & Pat Fromm

Happy New Year 2003! How can I a married priest be? A tale it is of God’s Mystery So do read on and you will see!

It was April, 1968, a sunny Sunday afternoon when I finally relaxed in my room at the rectory, reading the Sunday newspaper. All the Masses had been said (upstairs and downstairs) in the large church for several thousand families. I had performed the Baptisms and was now on duty. My priest friend from another parish dropped in and noticed that I was looking at the “apartments for rent” section. Our eyes met and we laughed. We had both been planning to leave the clerical priesthood! Convinced that the Holy Spirit had called us to this action, we proceeded to find an apartment; move-in date, August 4th.

I had no awareness of the thousands of priests and nuns who were leaving the religious/canonical life that year. My total upbringing, training and ordination were pre-Vatican II. I was quite medieval. The idea of leaving the priesthood grew slowly to the point where it became a clear decision, something I had to do for my own integrity as a man. I had really always wanted to marry and have children. I saw that mandated celibacy could not take away my inalienable right to marry. I did not have three lifetimes to wait for a change in Canon Law. By appointment, I went to see the Bishop on Tuesday, July 30. I tried to explain, answered his questions, gave him my letter of resignation, accepted his blessing and left.

I had informed my Christian Family Movement group and others that I was leaving. The CFMers had given me a party, a briefcase and civilian clothes. One couple invited me to their 25th wedding anniversary party on that very afternoon. I felt very happy, free and unburdened. As a “former priest”, I was accepted at the party, danced and celebrated with them and they with me. I had joined the human race. Mostly I felt on a high. In retrospect I can see that I had a large storage room of many mixed feelings: fear, guilt, shame, even anger or rage at having to give up my functioning as a priest in order to marry. Feelings are not rational but they are there and mainly in the past, from childhood on. What brought me to this watershed in my life? Everything that went before.

Born on April 2, 1930, I was a “depression baby”. My mother Marie’s parents came from Ireland. Her father died when she was one year old. My father Werner’s grandparents came from Germany. His parents were divorced when he was age 6. He did not see his father in California until he was 21 years old on his honeymoon trip in 1928. The first ten years of my life were lived in the home of Grandma Walsh and her son John. We were quite poor, but nobody told me. My brother Larry and I would often get a nickel to go to the movies. Three more brothers and one girl completed our family. Sure’n ‘twas a very Irish Catholic home! Every evening Grandma read her prayers in the rocking chair, then led Larry and me in night prayers. When my mother’s cousin “Father Mac” would visit, he would sit me on his lap…I was impressed. St. Mary’s Church and School played a big part in my life. In grade 2, when the priest came to our classroom, and Sr. Zita asked, “Who wants to be a priest?”, I always raised my hand. I attended parochial schools all the way through grade 12, except for grade 9 when I attended Garfield Public High School. Juliet (her twin brother was Romeo), God bless her, taught me Latin, and Rhetta, a 12th grader, tutored me in Latin while her boyfriend Joe waited in the hall. When the Protestant Bible was read in the morning on the PA, I tried not to listen. In the third grade I felt fear whenever I passed a Protestant Church; I didn’t think about why.

I graduated from St. Mary’s High School on June 8, 1948. In July I informed my parents that I was going to be a priest. They were surprised but happy. I got a special hug from Dad when we were doing the dishes. He told me that he had wanted to be a priest, but was told he had no vocation. Was it because his parents were divorced? Oh, happy fault! After I passed the entrance exam, the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio, accepted me and sent me to St. Gregory’s Seminary, in Cincinnati, Ohio. In May of 1950, two weeks after I came home for the summer, Dad died of cancer, after 6 months of suffering.

In June of 1953, I came home from Mount St. Mary’s of the West Seminary, Cincinnati, with a BA degree in Philosophy. What a blessing that most seminaries gave no degrees! My home pastor set me up for summer job experience with the firm that built the rectory. I was a laborer/hod-carrier, mixing “mud” (cement) and wheel-barrowing it to the bricklayers. An older Italian man showed me how to “be busy…pick up that board and move it over there, walk around, then move it back again, etc. etc.” Jack W., a very fine black co-laborer, drove me to and from the job. On pay day, Jack said he could no longer pick me up; he was fired. I was so naïve! Quite sometime after that I realized that when I was hired, he was dismissed. I admire the manly way he handled such unfairness and his continued kindness to me. Other jobs I held were with the Akron City Streets and Sewer Departments, plus a job at a boys’ summer camp. Years later, Joe from the camp ran into me and thanked me for being a good counselor, and for helping him with family problems.

Sunday missals became popular. The people now could read in English what the priest said to God in Latin. A highlight event: one summer a few young priests took a few of us seminarians to the National Liturgical Convention at Notre Dame University, a great experience. There was talk about having the liturgy in English! Those interested in that topic had to take a bus off of the ND campus to a farm to discuss this revolutionary and rebellious concept. Also, at this time, the Easter Vigil Liturgy was restored to the Church (the people of God) as a Vigil leading to a renewed life of the Resurrection, eliminating the 6 a.m. ritual recited by the priest and altar boys on Holy Saturday morning.

My ordination class, 25 of us, had persevered through 8 or 9 years of the “boot camp” called The Seminary. There were many wonderful professors, like the priest who taught us the marvels of evolution in the biology class; truly spiritual men who guided, inspired and encouraged us. But the systemic problems were alive and well. In Scripture class one of us questioned an interpretation of something; the professor, with red-faced rage, insisted that the student had no right to think or question this teaching. One week later that seminarian disappeared. During my first year of Theology, a close friend, a W.W.II veteran, (now a Deacon), came to me to vent very strong feelings about our being treated as “little boys”. My feelings on that subject were not so strong yet, so of course we swallowed that pill and encouraged each other because we felt called and wanted to be priests, to get out there and save souls. On May 18, 1957, 25 of us were ordained priests. We had signed away our sexuality as a necessary part of obedience to the Bishop. It had been stressed time and again that diocesan priests’ celibacy was not a vow. (I am astounded now to hear bishops refer to mandated celibacy as a vow). Only those in Religious Orders, we were told, take vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.

How often in retreats and days of recollection we were told to avoid girls, for they would destroy our vocation. “Particular friendships” were also harped on regularly. Eventually one might conclude that they were really talking about homosexuality. We were not to have any close relationships with humans, male or female. Sacramental Theology topped off this whole mentality by informing us that the anointing of Holy Orders brought about an ontological change in our beings; we are above human nature. This may explain the laity’s shock in discovering that priests are human, sinners and just regular guys. We absorbed this mentality, and it is now a source of pain for us who are the Church, especially with the pedophilia cases and the unchristian treatment of the priests, the victims and the laity.

Ordination day was a glorious day. We had all felt the call, pursued the priesthood; our day had come. The anointing and laying on of hands brought to me a frozen moment, a deep awareness of the Holy Spirit filling my soul, together with awareness of responsibility to save souls, teach, preach, administer sacraments, offer Mass, etc. My family and friends were wonderful; there was joy, love, thanksgiving, confidence in the Holy Spirit. Still a daily prayer for me is my favorite, the Prayer of St. Francis, “a teaching prayer”.

The chancery letter assigned me to Sacred Heart Parish, Wadsworth, Ohio. The people were wonderful; I learned so much from them. The pastor and housekeeper, an excellent cook, were well-organized but so rigid. After three years, the pastor was replaced by a former Army chaplain, a man kind and compassionate. He provided a dramatic change and was a true priestly role model. In June 1952 I was assigned to St. Francis de Sales parish, Parma, Ohio. It was a huge parish: four priests, nuns for the school with four rooms of each grade 1 through 8. The eleven years in parish work were busy. In both parishes, as the young, new Assistant Pastor, I had many assignments. I especially loved teaching the young school children, the Young Adults Club, the High School Club, and organizing Christian Family Movement groups. C.F.M. gave me a great appreciation of (as Paul would call them) “the saints” at Wadsworth and Parma, of married life, and the raising and care of children.

Various incidents affected me deeply. A couple came seeking the Sacrament of Marriage: he a non-Catholic widower, she a Catholic with two young children, divorced from an abusive husband. At his request I instructed him, and baptized him. The appeal to the chancery for an annulment was denied. Their pain and tears are a sharp memory. Such pain; cui bono? Having been well trained not to think, I didn’t. Now I see that mandated celibacy seemed to be the solution to many problems. Our 21st century solution to abusive marriages includes annulment.

People brought their problems to their priest. I began to see two things: a great need for counseling, and my limited knowledge and experience. So often, pious platitudes and memorized solutions had little good effect. I started work on a Master’s degree in Guidance and Counseling at John Carroll University.

Five of us young priests, friends since seminary days, got together on Tuesdays (our day off) at a Jesuit Retreat House. Our purpose developed from our needs: to support each other in our spiritual life, to promote growth, and to share our problems, personal and parish-wise. We shared readings, thoughts, experiences and ideas. We aimed to spend one hour a day in contemplative prayer. Spiritual growth led us into emotional blocks, then to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy to work them out. I wanted to, I had to grow up, at times through a great deal of pain. But the process developed a sense freedom, the freedom of the children of God to grow, to exist, to act and be channels of His Peace. Was not the Holy Spirit given to each of us to discern truth? St. John said that. However, truth starts with knowledge of self, and with learning to love as God does.

Thus it was that those thirty-eight years of experiences plus living through so many events: World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the assassination of J.F.K., and Martin Luther King, race riots, Vatican Council II, Pope John XXIII’s death, all had an effect upon my life. I resigned from the clerical priesthood.

Applications for several jobs were filled out, money was running out, and finally, I was hired by the Cleveland Public Schools as a teacher/guidance counselor in an adult vocational program at the Woodland Job Center. My MA degree in Guidance and counseling would be completed in August 1969. The program trained adults, age 18 to 80, in job skills for 12 different careers, from 6 months to four years in length. The experience and my growth were startling and fantastic. In many ways I felt that I was starting out where I had left off at age eighteen. And I was. My naiveté was quickly lost with very helpful, seasoned teachers and mostly black adults seasoned in a harsh world. These were veterans of the three recent wars, mothers and fathers on welfare, even a group of Black Panthers in uniform; this was a year after the Cleveland race riots. Their looks of hatred would strike fear into this “Whitey”, but they had adult mentors and received career training in construction trades plus an allowance, or some VA checks. Of 500 trainees, 180 were veterans. I handled all VA papers, reports and checks, counseled for drugs, and handled every conceivable problem. It was easy to see this job as a ministry, and listening as a major need. A nun entered the Auto Mechanic Program to care for the cars at the Dominican mother house in Akron. An eighty year old man trained in the print shop. I had started dating, and made some new and wonderful friends. I shamelessly told everybody I was a priest. A part-time job at Higbee’s Department store downtown was interesting, as was teaching philosophy part-time at Cuyahoga Community College for a year. Having completed the Master’s program at John Carroll University, I was now certified to teach college courses.

A surprise Christmas card came from a high school classmate who had left the order of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Monroe, Michigan. A dinner date with Patricia Ann Kidder sparked a relationship that led to our marriage on December 23, 1972. Our marriage was witnessed by a Protestant minister, but to please our mothers, our auxiliary Bishop got canonical approval for us. Pat Kidder taught Social Studies at a public middle school, but lost her job, basically because she opposed the Vietnam War. She then worked for the Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation. We bought a house and shared a very happy marriage until a tragic auto accident suddenly took her life. This happened on Jan.21, 1976, as we coming home from Monroe, Michigan, where we had been visiting some of her old convent friends. We had previously discussed death, and had agreed and hoped that the survivor would find someone to love and share life. It took some time to go through the grieving and healing process.

Time passed, then, unexpectedly, a lovely young lady who had once occupied the same apartment building as I, reappeared in my life. She invited me to a party! Well, a year later we were engaged. This marvelous person, Patricia Clark Miller, a nurse, was raised in Rochester, NY and in the United Church of Christ. We were married in St. James Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights on Jan. 26, 1980. Our marriage has been happy and exciting. Pat and I have been blessed with two wonderful daughters. Katie, age 19, is in her first year at Loyola University, Chicago. She loves it and is doing well in Computer Science. Becky is a senior at our local Kenston High School, presently buried in college applications and mail. The girls began Irish Dance lessons when they were ages 5 and 7. They have placed in the World Competitions in Dublin and Belfast, Ireland. All the time and effort were worth it, and the blessings are numerous.

George Eppley, another former priest and seminary professor, organized a monthly luncheon of married priests. There was much to share, and I received help and information. Our daughters were of age for religious instruction, and I was told of a parish near our home called Resurrection: very Vatican II. The pastor was one who had taken me to ND years ago. The girls had been baptized in a Catholic church by an old seminary friend. Katie’s godparents are a married Jesuit and his wife. So I taught religion in grade 5 for five years, and took the girls there. Pat often came to church and felt welcome enough to partake of Communion, as did some of our Presbyterian friends.

During all of those years from my resignation until our daughters were of school age, I could not bring myself to attend church, except for weddings and funerals. I think that was basically due to my feelings towards the hierarchy. In 1968 the Pope called priests who left “Judases”. I could never rejoin the canonical clerical culture as it currently exists. I had sadly resigned myself to the fact that if I married I could and would never function as a priest again. My wife had no problem about the girls being baptized Catholic, or their first Holy Communion and Confirmation. Our daughters attended the Parish School of Religion including the grade 5 class which I taught. This experience was fun! My class started with a moment of total silence in God’s presence, to see what thoughts and feelings we had and to let the Holy Spirit put thoughts in our minds: a prayer of contemplation.

In Middle School the girls needed to go to PSR with their local peers. A new parish had developed in our neighborhood, with a Vatican II pastor. I was welcomed to participate in whatever ways I wanted in the parish. Our marriage was no issue, the girls are happy, and I am a Eucharistic Minister and have joined the Music Ministry (choir).

Then came the CORPUS National Convention at Kent State University. With my very close friend and married priest, Jack Connor, I attended. We had no idea what married priests had been doing for 30 years. The Convention itself was an epiphany of information, a waterfall of grace, but for me, the celebration of the Eucharist was another significant “frozen moment”, an inspirational confirmation of Eucharistic bonding with 25,000 married priests across our country. We both joined CORPUS and have participated in almost all subsequent National CORPUS Conferences. The Federation of Christian Ministries was another level of involvement that took a while before I could advance there. I learned so much history, and received spiritual encouragement from Anthony Padovano and many other sources. This was history that had been forgotten, buried, suppressed and distorted. How truth does make one free ( and then responsible)! What a revelation - to meet married priests who shared the Eucharist in small Faith groups, baptized, and witnessed couples exchanging vows, giving the sacrament of Marriage to each other. We were meeting the spiritual needs of canonical rejects, as we did at the Woodland Job Center for social and educational rejects, often real and remarkable people.

My wife Pat, a nurse manager, has supported me in CORPUS activities. She lets people know that I can perform marriages, which so far has led to my officiating at three marriages and one Baptism. She has arranged three more weddings and one Baptism for this year, 2003. Therefore, I keep on being a married priest wherever I am. Together we pray: Here we are, Lord; what’s next?

My heart overflows with gratitude to all of my brother married priests and their wives who with the Holy Spirit have extended their ministry to the universe, including me. Thank you for your sufferings, labors, use of your remarkable talents, your concern and support. By your works I know you. CORPUS is truly a Body of Love.

Now it seems we’ve come to the end But no, my friend, it’s just a bend; ‘Tis infinitely finite that I be, It goes on and on and on…you see?!

The Fromm Family live in Chagrin Falls, OH and they can be reached at dpfromm@aol.com.



 
 
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