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'He's Been There' : Clergy: As more once-married men are ordained, Catholic congregations say they appreciate having priests who've raised families.

August 13, 1992|ANDREA HEIMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Father Ed Fremgen's ordination ceremony was traditional in every sense.

Except one.

"Cardinal Mahony said it was the first time in the history of the diocese that the ceremony was held up because the person who was to be ordained's grandchild had to go to the bathroom," Fremgen says.

The 65-year-old Roman Catholic priest has four grandchildren. And four children. He was married for 24 years and spent 18 years working as a proposals estimator for Hughes Aircraft Co.

But when his wife, Ruth, died in 1977, he started to contemplate a second career--as a Roman Catholic priest. He entered the seminary in 1987 and was ordained in January.

"It was always something in the back of my mind," says Fremgen, parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Paramount. "After my wife passed away and my children were reared, I realized it would be something to do that would fulfill my life."

Throughout most of its 2,000-year history, the Catholic Church has allowed a man to become a priest if his wife died or his marriage was annulled. But few men made that choice.

Within the past 10 years, however, a growing number of once-married men--widowers primarily--have entered the priesthood. And their ability to tap into first-hand experiences as husbands and fathers is making a mark in the Catholic Church.

Fremgen, for example, has counseled both married and engaged couples: "It helps having been married. I bring up questions about their economic situation, family relations, communication needed, things they haven't given much thought to."

Fremgen, whose wife died of cancer two months after their 24th anniversary, uses personal experience in other situations. Once, he explains, he was called to the home of a man whose wife was also terminally ill with cancer.

"I talked with the husband, and his knowing I went through the same situation was a great consolation. I saw him two weeks later at the funeral, and he said he was able to cope much better before she died because of talking to me."

Sister Kathy Bryant, who screens potential priests for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, says the recent increase in "second-career" priests is largely caused by increased life expectancy. People live long enough to raise a family and then take a different turn with their lives. Having raised a family adds a dimension to their priestly duties, she says.

"There was great joy about (Fremgen's) ordination," Bryant adds. "Having his children and grandkids there made it special."

Bill Rivera, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, says that the trend toward widowers becoming priests is a "very positive accomplishment. There is a shortage of priests. This provides another source of people. They bring a rich variety of experience to the priesthood."

Fremgen says his decision to enter the priesthood was a natural extension of his lifelong involvement in the Catholic Church. And his parishioners are happy to have a priest who may very well have experienced some of the same family and life problems they face.

"He's more understanding," says parishioner Lucille Chavez, 58. "He's been there, he's paid the bills, raised the kids."

Maggie Boone, who attends St. Catherine of Alexandria in Riverside, agrees. The two priests assigned to that parish were once married.

"I feel (my priest) has experienced what a wife has gone through in a marriage, as an unmarried priest wouldn't. He has a more realistic view of family life. He had a spouse, which most of them don't. He knows about the give and take in a marriage and he knows it from experience, not book learning, which makes a difference," says Boone, 51.

At 74, Thomas Bonacum has been a priest for 14 years, after being married for 35 years and raising six children.

"As a young boy in my teens I wanted to be a priest, but I didn't have the ability or the time, and I didn't think I had the brains," says Bonacum, parish priest of Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Idyllwild. "After being in the college of hard knocks, I decided to do it."

Bonacum was a teacher, an industrial engineer and a police officer for 19 years. A grandfather of five, Bonacum has found that his congregation appreciates his experiences as a married man. He believes without that, people would not ask his advice so readily.

"They don't have to wait until I read 347 pages of text. I have it here in my head and in my heart," he says.

Bonacum, whose license plate reads "Fr. Dad" (Father Dad), courtesy of his children, says his kids get a kick out having a priest for a father. To them, it's a novelty.

And what do the children of other priests think? The church does not allow a widower to become a priest until all his children are grown and self-sufficient. But even adult children have mixed feelings about a father who has a new set of priorities and commitments. "It was a surprise, and hard at first," says Ed Fremgen's son Mark, 33, who lives in Long Beach. His father entered the seminary almost six years ago at St. John's in Camarillo.

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