There are close to 600 permanent deacons in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and most of them are married. Many of the wives live lives of service, volunteering in parish and social ministries along with their husbands.
Deacons’ wives do everything from serving as field advocates for the Marriage Tribunal to sacramental preparation to visiting the sick and the homebound, said Marge Colgan, whose husband, Deacon Dennis Colgan, is associate director for the Diaconate Community.
“Just about everything the guys can do we do, except serve at the altar,” said Marge Colgan.
Colgan and several other deacon wives are coming together to provide opportunities for the deacon wives to get to know and support one another, get spiritual sustenance and education. Their next big event is a day dedicated to learning about domestic violence on Sept. 24.
Service is not required from the wives. What is required is the wives’ written, informed consent for their husbands’ ordination, and their ongoing prayer and support, said Deacon Robert Puhala, director of diaconate formation in the archdiocese.
“The ‘role’ of deacons’ wives can best be articulated by two goals: to discern through prayer and participation whether she can support her husband during formation; and if he is ordained, do the same during his diaconal ministry,” Puhala said in an e-mail.
“Deacons’ wives are equal partners in the sacrament of matrimony; however, they do not share with their deacon husbands the sacrament of holy orders. The deacon’s ordination does not confer any ministerial role to his wife. That’s why ‘deacon couple’ is a misleading and theologically incorrect descriptive tag of a deacon and wife.”
However, many deacons wives are already active in lay ministry before their husbands are ordained, and they continue that involvement.
Sue Szarek’s husband, John, was ordained five years ago and serves at St. Ansgar Parish in Hanover Park. “I was already very active in my parish. I enjoy the people contact, and people do recognize me because I am his wife and they might be more comfortable coming to me,” she said.
Szarek participated in her husband’s formation as much as she could.
Roberta Fair, whose husband, Davis, was ordained 10 years ago, was required to participate in all his classes, and she said it’s a good thing she was. “After living with someone for 40 years, you think you know someone,” said Fair. “But I got to see the spiritual side of him that I never saw before.”
In the Archdiocese of Chicago, deacons’ wives were originally not included in the formation process, Puhala said, but that led to a lack of understanding and, sometimes, marital problems.
“In Chicago, wives of aspirants/candidates must participate in key events designated by the program, but also may accompany their husbands through certain segments of the program, if they so desire,” Puhala said. “These choices are available because the Chicago program so greatly respects a wife’s individual call to lay ministry that flows out of their baptism.”
At Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica, Fair started helping with a hot breakfast program for homeless people, and when one asked her if she had any gloves, a new ministry was born. She began collecting clothing and toiletries several times a year, and now has a cadre of volunteers to help.
She also continued with a ministry she started before her husband was ordained, helping at Zacchaeus House, a “safe house” for men. There, she cooks holiday meals and does whatever else is necessary.
Margaret Virruso, whose husband, Christopher, was ordained 25 years ago, was most active working with a bereavement group at their parish, Our Lady, Mother of the Church.
“It is a vocation,” she said. “And it is very time-consuming.”
Her children were grown by the time her husband was ordained, she said, but there were times she would have to bring a grandchild along to a bereavement support group meeting.
“It was a good experience for them, too,” she said. “But your family has to be very supportive of what you are doing.”
It’s not always easy. The wives of deacons with young children often spend most of their time tending to their families, because their husbands are spending more time at church. Others find that they can’t be as open as they otherwise might be about difficulties in their own families, or that they must be more careful about how they present themselves in the community.
“You have to mind your Ps and Qs,” Szarek said.