Widowed Clergy Wives

By Mary Ann Bulko

“...defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17)
“...visit orphans and widows in their affliction. . .” (James 1:27)

The physical body is so designed that all its faculties respond to protect and heal it when a part of it suffers injury. Likewise, the members of the spiritual body, the Church, congregate as a mother to enfold and protect another member whose life is ruptured with sin, with pain, or with grief. “When one member suffers, all suffer. . ” St. Paul reminds us. Women and men who have lived their life in Christ in the sacramental union of marriage, experience this rupture profoundly when their partner is physically separated from them in death.

Among widows in particular, how great is the special suffering of women whose husbands died as pastors of Christ’s flock. “Hardship,” “deprivation,” are among the terms found in correspondence concerning the history of such women. Many of the older wives who served with their husband-priests in the earliest days of the Church in North America became widowed at a time which preceded the establishment of any pension plans or similar sources of financial aid. As one correspondent wrote “It is not to the credit of the Church that those of that era who did not have pensions or even social security, do not at least have retirement centers. . .in recognition of the sacrifices that helped build the Church.”

While indeed there are many widows who continue to be truly a source of inspiration and joy in an ongoing reciprocal fashion to all those who have come to know and love them, still there are many who, as a result of apathy, neglect, and even harsh treatment on the part of Church members, have grown embittered or have receded from active Church life.

Implementing a Program of Care and Concern

While in general, all clergy widows need compassion and kind attention, the Church must be sensitive to “the individual need of each” (Divine Liturgy prayer) and respond to those, special needs. In order to implement a program of care and concern for clergy widows, it is recommended that initially a listing be established by a contact person within each diocese containing the names and addresses of those widows residing within its boundaries. Then on either a deanery or parish level these listings can be divided further to establish local, more personal communication. The services that could be provided however need not be limited to those in a given location since some widows may require help who are not in easily accessible areas (i.e. Argentina, Montana).

Through a parish sisterhood, pastoral committee, or simply interested individuals, either a personal visit, phone call, or letter should be sent to initiate some contact. A remembrance on a birthday or namesday with a card or gift would be considerate. It must again be emphasized that individual needs will vary. A woman in her seventies or eighties might appreciate some offer of transportation to church, a physician, shopping, etc., or even perhaps help with reading or writing or household chores, while a younger widow might need help with childcare or perhaps an invitation for a social visit such as lunch or tea might be well received. It is difficult to say precisely what could be done, but at least an attempt with some thoughtful consideration should be initiated. What is important is sincerity, continuity, and positive action. rather than simply good intentions.

Hopefully the local priest or diocesan contact person would have a clearer idea as to whether there is indeed a financial burden involved. If handled with discretion and tact, this too might be a source of help and assistance which the Church could provide to our clergy widows.

An example of a diocesan or parochial undertaking, depending on the number of women and finances available, would be to send Christmas gifts. The New York and New Jersey Diocese, this past year, in conjunction with New Skete Farms of Cambridge, New York ,mailed food gifts to each widow clergy wife in its area with blessings for the Nativity from His Grace Bishop Peter and the diocese.

Invaluable Services and Gifts to Offer

We ought not, on the other hand, overlook the invaluable services and gifts that these women can and do, in fact, offer to the Church for its benefit and uplifting. As choir directors, church school teachers, council members, women of tempered patience and prayer, perhaps even as archivist-historians, their talents and gifts are numerous. We have received letters from some widows in their eighties that are filled with nostalgic remembrances of days gone by. These memoirs of history could be invaluable for sharing with today’s generation the growing pains of Orthodoxy on this continent. One delightfully charming letter told of the rides by horse-drawn sled across a snow-covered Canada in order to do missionary work and baptize new infants.

It described how priests and their wives nearly froze before they would arrive at the next town on their journey. Their compensation for these very difficult trips consisted of a few eggs, some bacon, perhaps a chicken, and some hay for the horse. She writes that reflecting now on those early days brings her laughter and amusement although, at the time, conditions were very difficult and harsh. True stories such as this must be related, shared, and preserved for posterity.

And so with a bit of self-determination one must begin to see how help can be offered. Speak to your local priest or a diocesan contact person to begin a positive program for reaching out to the widowed clergy wives of our Church.

Check List

To Contact and Show Concern for Clergy Widows

1. Listing of names and addresses within each diocese, indicating location by deanery and parish.

2. Initial contact through

  1. Pastoral committee.
  2. Parish sisterhood.
  3. Interested individual.

3. Aid, depending on individual need.

  1. Card and/or gift on birthday, holidays.
  2. Providing transportation.
  3. Chores around home.
  4. Invitation to lunch or a visit.
  5. Financial assistance.

4. Encouraging their services to the Church in such areas as

  1. Choir Director/Member.
  2. Sisterhood
  3. Church School Teacher.
  4. Council Member.
  5. Archivist.
  6. Prayer

Mary Ann Bulko, a mother of four, writes a column In The Orthodox Church newspaper and is a member of the Department of Stewardship and Lay Ministries.