KEEPING THE FAITH, Former priest defies ‘insane’ law. By Bill Davis
After 20 years as an Army chaplain and 31 years as an ordained Catholic pries and member of the Franciscan (Capuchin) order, Tom Dunn hung up his collar and dog tags in 1984 to marry the love of his life, Cathy Lee.
“We had concluded that the church’s law about mandatory celibachy was insane, and we no long felt bound by an insane law.”
“Had we violated church law? Certainly. But we asked ourselves, ‘Had we violated Jesus of Nazareth? Does he really want us to stay apart?’ No way, and we continued to attend mass and take communion.”
Two “gung-ho” Catholics, he & Cathy began to question whether the celibacy requirement was God talking or some pope from history. “The first 1,000 years of Catholic life, priests married. We decided it wasn’t God and that is was an error in the church.”
Dunn & Cathy first met 43 years ago at her mother’s Brooklyn home when he was a priest at St. Michael’s and she was home on vacation from nursing school in Virginia. Cathy says she felt a “certain zing” in her heart the first time she saw him, but put it out of her mind.
A few years later, she returned home and got to know Dunn better and fell in love. He describes her as being “gorgeous” and says they became “involved” at that point.
That move went against everything Dunn had been taught at home, at church, and in the seminary.
At 14, he left his New York City home to attend Catholic seminar in Garrison on the Hudson, right across the river from West Point. It was there as a freshman that young Tom heard about the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. He entered a novitiate after the war in 1945.
Eight years later, he was an ordained Catholic priest and member of the Franciscan Order.
Looking back now, Dunn, who’s lived in Georgetown for the past seven years, says he stayed in the priesthood for so long because he was bred for blind obedience by a strict father and Catholic training, and because he shared such a camaraderie with the guys he went through seminary with.
There is another perhaps stronger reason he stayed in the priesthood.
“There is no way I could have left the priesthood because of the ‘other woman’ in my life – my mother. She was an old-school Irish traditionalist. If I had left the priesthood, it would have killed her.”
Partly to put some distance between him and Cathy, Dunn joined the U.S. Army as a chaplain in 1964 and began a series of geographic cures. “I wanted to get away from her so she could have a normal life.”
“He was worried that he was going to ruin my life,” laughs Cathy. “He didn’t ruin my life, he made it wonderful.”
Stationed at bases as far afield as California, Vietnam (twice), and Alaska, Dunn hoped that their feelings and the relationship would end. But distance, as they say, only makes the heart grow fonder.
It was in Alaska, not having seen his true love for 3 years, that Dunn stopped fighting. “I realized then I was committed to this woman for life.” She had already committed to him. “I was her guy.”
He took an assignment at Ft. Hamilton, NY to be closer to his gal. “And we took up right where we left off, and we lived together whenever we could.”
“It was a struggle for us,” she says.
Even though they found the celibacy law insane, they continued to follow it, at least in public. When Dunn took an assignment to Germany, Cathy followed, and the two kept their relationship hidden there for 3 years.
After that, they came back to the states where he was stationed in Louisiana, Missouri, and finally Ft. Dix in New Jersey, where he finally retired.
They married in a civil ceremony in Toms River, NJ, because the church wouldn’t allow a priest to marry them. At the time, after Vatican II, the pope had stopped handing out special dispensations for priests.
In the Catholic faith, once a man is ordained as a priest, part of his character is forever changed and he can never stop being a priest, but he can stop functioning as a priest.
“He was such a wonderful priest,” Cathy says of her ‘darling’. It’s tragic that he couldn’t be a priest because of me.