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Catholic Priest Is Married to the Church as Well as a Wife

Religion: Robert McElwee is among the handful of married Protestant clergymen who, after converting, became Roman Catholic priests. Between parish and family, the life is demanding.


FRONTENAC, Kan. — His love affair with Harley-Davidsons isn't what makes Robert McElwee the rarest of Roman Catholic priests. What sets him apart is that he shares this passion with his wife.

As Catholic leaders in America confront a worsening shortage of priests, McElwee is one of a handful of reinforcements to arrive, family in tow, from the ranks of Protestant clergy.

He is revered for his energy, devotion and humor by most of his parishioners in Frontenac, a predominantly Catholic town of 2,600 in southeast Kansas. But the wiry, bearded former Episcopalian--father of six, grandfather of three--refuses to see himself as a reason to question the celibate priesthood.

"I'm not the avant-garde," he said in his office behind Sacred Heart Church. "I'd be disheartened if I convinced people that married clergy is a good idea."

Indeed, he calls himself a "bigamist"--married to both the priesthood and his wife, remorseful that pastoral commitments make him an often-absent husband and father. He recalled having to rush off to perform last rites for a dying man moments after his youngest son was born 16 years ago.

"It's a major source of guilt," he said. "There are days when I know I'm shortchanging my family. A lot of things they do, they do without me."

McElwee, 53, and his wife, Ginger, grew up as nonbelievers. They married in Wichita when each was 19, and he eventually was ordained as an Episcopal priest.

Both found themselves drawn to Catholicism, however, and they decided to convert because they felt many Episcopalians were too tolerant of abortion.

Their conversion coincided with Pope John Paul II's decision in 1980 to allow some married Episcopal clergymen to become Catholic priests. Fewer than 100 have done so since then, and McElwee--after more than a decade performing other pastoral tasks--three years ago became one of the very few to be assigned traditional parish duties.

16-Hour Workdays Are Common

Ministering to his Frontenac flock is only one of the tasks that often keep him working 16 or more hours a day. He teaches five mornings a week at a Catholic high school in neighboring Pittsburg, oversees the Catholic student center at Pittsburg State University, works as a licensed marriage therapist and is chaplain at a Catholic hospital.

Ginger McElwee said her husband's pastoral duties take a toll on the family even as they strive to support him.

"He has this enormous responsibility to constantly be available to everyone--he is responsible for their souls," she said. "As a wife or a child, you can't compete. You can't say, 'I'm sorry, I want you to drop that person. You were supposed to take me out to dinner.' "

Mrs. McElwee took up motorcycling a few years ago, partly to increase the odds that some of her husband's scarce free time could be spent with her.

"The whole family has to constantly put the parish first," she said. "It can be difficult, and it can be very lonely. It affects relationships."

Family Feels the Strain

The strain is financial as well as emotional. McElwee says the family is in debt. His wife--who works part time at a quilt store and teaches psychology at Pittsburg State--worries that their only car may soon need replacement.

"As bright and well educated as my husband is, if he spent as many hours at any other job, we'd be rich," she said.

Like his parents, 16-year-old Jordan McElwee--the youngest child--doesn't think married priests are a wise idea.

"I'd never recommend it," said Jordan, a sophomore at Frontenac High School. "I don't get to see my dad a lot--he's on call all the time."

But there are moments that offset the fatherless birthdays and holidays, when people tell Jordan how grateful they are for some kindness or assistance from his father. "That's pretty cool," Jordan said.

Bikers in the region also appreciate McElwee; scores of them pull into the parking lot of the red-brick church each spring for the "Blessing of the Bikes." His business card bears the motto, "If I'm not guiding, I'm riding," and motorcycle posters and models adorn his office.

Having worked at various pastoral jobs in Pittsburg for a decade, McElwee was known to many--but not all--of Frontenac's Catholics when he took up parish duties three years ago.

"We have a very traditional parish--lots of elderly Italians," said Jim Barone, a state senator from Frontenac. "The talk on the street when he arrived was, 'Oh boy, this will be interesting.' But within a few weeks he won everybody over."

McElwee recalled some troubling moments.

"I've had people get up and walk out of Mass who'd say, 'I'd no more take communion from you than from an adulterer,' " he said. "There are obviously people uncomfortable with me being a priest--I'm uncomfortable with it."

By now he knows that most of his parishioners support him, but he hopes they also support the church's policy favoring priestly celibacy.

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