Widows of Deacons
Wives left behind need outreach and support from the diaconal community
When someone dies, the loss is always present. For some wives of deacons, when their husbands die, that loss can be doubly difficult: losing a husband as well as their deep involvement together in the diaconate community.
Barb Dyer’s husband, Donald, was a deacon at St. Rose Church in Wilmington, Illinois, for 27 years until his death in 2013. Barb Dyer shared in his diaconate by going with him to his formation classes. They offered marriage counseling as a ministry together. They went to diaconal convocations together.
“After he died, I feel like I lost a family,” she said. One of the biggest losses is the sharing that was present with other deacons and their wives, she added.
Just as men go on journeys of faith when they become deacons, their wives are on journeys, too. It’s usually one involving lots of sacrifices. For instance, who watches the children in the evening if her deacon husband is at church for a meeting? Usually the wife.
Who sits alone in the pew when her husband is up on the altar, standing next to the priest during the Mass? The wife.
These sacrifices mean that the wife has to approve of her husband’s diaconal formation and life of service after his ordination. As James Keating put it in his book “The Heart of the Diaconate” (Paulist Press, $12.95), “A wife knows when her husband has received a call because she is ready to ‘send him.’” Thus being supportive of her husband is an inherently important part of a wife’s mindset while her deacon husband is alive.
But what happens when her husband dies?
Who is supportive of the widows of deacons, either spiritually or in general? That was a question recently posed to several widows of deacons, and their stories reveal loss, but also hope.
Sharon Barr’s husband became a deacon in 1983 in the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois. They later moved to the Diocese of Phoenix in 1986. She remembers that, back then, life as a deacon for her husband, and as a deacon’s wife, wasn’t that easy.
“The parishes didn’t know what to do with the deacon’s wives,” she said. “The parish priest didn’t know what to do with deacons, and the wife was left to hang out to dry, I guess you would call it.”
She also remembers she knew some women who seemed to think they were training to be deacons, too. As a result, she said, these women thought they “could run the parish.”
Sharon disagreed with those women’s mindsets and, instead, was supportive of her husband in the ways she felt a wife should be: taking care of the children; typing his paperwork; sharing information from books.
“I wasn’t to be out there, in front of him, up on the altar,” she said, speaking figuratively. She saw his diaconal formation as a way for her to grow in faith. So she would go with him to his classes, she said.
In the Diocese of Phoenix, once Bishop Thomas Olmsted became the shepherd of that diocese, he made sure that the wives of deacons were included in different programs throughout the year.
After her husband, Earl, died 18 years ago, she moved back to the Diocese of Peoria and, as a widow of a deacon, hasn’t heard anything from either diocese. There’s no form of outreach or support for her, she said. She added that that needs to change.
Her recommendation: Have another deacon’s wife be in contact with the spouse that is left behind, even if it’s a note saying, “I’m thinking of you,” or “We’re praying for you.”
“Something to let them know they are being thought of,” said Sharon. “I think the younger women, in their 50s and 60s, would really appreciate it.”
She also pointed out that some deacons don’t have any children, so it’s important that the Church reaches out to those wives who are now widows because they may have less of a support system the older they get. And as widows of deacons get older, the diaconal community they were once part of is also aging.
“A lot of them [the deacons] have passed away,” she said, adding that she did stay in touch with several of the deceased men’s wives after their husbands died. And then, she lost their numbers.
Something Is Missing
When Ann Worden’s husband, William, the former director of the diaconate office for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, died in 2012 at the age of 78, he had been a deacon for 32 years. Though she still misses her husband, she said she’s blessed to have a great support system. She has family who live close to her, ranging from great, great-grandchildren to her sister. She’s also still living in the same house she’s occupied for 50 years.
But there’s something missing. “When your husband dies and he’s a deacon, all of a sudden this entire family that you are part of, you’re not really part of anymore,” she said. “So it’s a loss.”
The Diocese of Joliet, she said, has been supportive of deacon’s widows, including inviting them to dinner at the diaconate convocations and a day just for the widows, where the women talked about how life changed for them after their husbands’ deaths.
“It can be devastating to lose a large section of your life,” she said. “You’ve already lost your husband and now you’ve lost another part. … It’s like having children — and then all of a sudden they leave. It’s something you have to deal with.”
When there are events that she, as a widow, is invited to, she said she is able to drive there, but she suggested that for those widows who are unable to drive, because of their age or illness, she hopes that dioceses can get some deacons to call them and offer rides.
She also hopes that men who are being formed as deacons could receive some training to remember to reach out to widowed wives of deacons from time to time. “I know it doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a big thing to remember to be inclusive to all the people of the diaconate family,” Ann said.
Another widowed wife of a deacon, Pat Dennison, has a different experience. Her husband, Jim, was ordained in 2003 in the Diocese of Joliet. The couple later moved to the Diocese of Green Bay. Jim died in 2016.
During the years he was a deacon, Pat was active in her own ministry, but she also continued to work with her husband in his ministry. Because she was involved in a lot of ministry service, she got to know the deacons more than their wives, she said. Since her husband’s death, Pat said she does feel a loss from not being as connected to the diaconal community, but she does have two groups who have supported her in the years following Jim’s passing away: those at the hospital she works at as a hospital chaplain and a group of friends from the parish where she is now a member.
“They are my support group now,” Pat said.
Carlos Briceño is a veteran Catholic journalist from Illinois.