The Joy of Fatherhood

updated 11/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

DURING HIS 40-YEAR CAREER AS AN ANESTHESIOLOGIST, Dick Ward accumulated an impressive share of life's material prizes. He had a $600,000 home in Seattle's fashionable Magnolia neighborhood, a collection of antique furniture and a 1986 red Porsche. But after his wife, Norah, died of cancer five years ago, Ward quit his $300,000-a-year job, shed his wealth and even gave up his beloved Porsche—to begin a new life as a Catholic priest. His current home is a spartan 6-foot-by-12-foot dormitory room at the Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wis.

"I now own nothing," says Ward, 67. Then he hastens to correct himself, lest he be guilty of a small sin of omission. "Pardon me, I did keep a Waterford lamp."

Ward and 160 other students at Sacred Heart, the largest of three seminaries nationwide which prepare older men for the priesthood, are part of a quiet revolution sweeping the Catholic Church in America. Faced with a dramatic decline in the number of active priests nationwide, from 35,000 in 1966 to 25,000 in 1992, the church has been encouraging older men to enter the priesthood as a second career. "In the 1960s a new priest in his mid-30s was ancient," says Richard Schoenherr, a sociologist who conducted a recent study on the phenomenon for the U.S. Catholic Conference. "Now we've got 65-year-old men being ordained." Once not needed by the church, second-career priests like Dick Ward are now eagerly welcomed because fewer young men are willing to take or maintain vows of celibacy.

Typically, second-career priests are divorcés with church annulments or widowers. For most, taking a vow of celibacy late in life is not a major issue. That is certainly the case with Ward. "I had the gift of sex for 37 years of marriage," says Ward, who has three grandchildren. "I gladly give up sex now."

Ward's spiritual calling has deep roots. An only child raised in a devout family in Seattle, he had toyed with the idea of joining the priest-hood from the time he was a little boy. Instead he fell in love and wed Norah Muldoon in 1950. Though the Wards attended mass without fail every week, they disagreed with church policy on celibacy and vowed that Ward would be the first in line if married men were ever allowed to become priests. In 1980 the doctors told Norah she had lymphoma, and she underwent chemotherapy or radiation continuously for the next seven years. During the long illness she often expressed her hope that Ward would someday realize his dream of becoming a priest. "It was because of Norah Muldoon's encouragement that I'm here today," he says.

At Sacred Heart, which offers a four-year program for second-career priests, the average age of the students is 43. In the last few years the seminary has ordained doctors, lawyers, a former FBI agent, farmers, mechanics, professors, chefs, teachers and a bookie. "Some of these guys made more money in 10 years than I will in a lifetime," says Richard Lux, a Sacred Heart professor. "When they apply that same dedication to studying, they are very successful." But taking a vow of celibacy isn't always as easy as it proved in Ward's case. "I had lots of girlfriends, so it was a tough call," says John Anderson, 31, a former bartender and ad salesman who has been at Sacred Heart for three years. "I finally concluded I'm not so much giving up something as I'm making another choice."

One trait the second-career priests have in common is perseverance. Sacred Heart's president, John Kasparek, 49, who entered seminary right out of grade school, recalls that the dropout rate among his classmates was 90 percent. "Here at Sacred Heart we have a 95 percent retention rate," he says. "These men want to become priests."

The need to serve was deeply ingrained in Ward. After joining the Air Force during the Korean War, he spent 10 years with the anesthesiology department at an Army hospital in San Antonio. "I felt I owed something to my country," he says. In 1963 he joined the staff of the University of Washington Medical School. His wife, who gave up her career as a surgical nurse to raise three children, eventually returned to work in the operating room but refused to accept any pay.

While Ward's children supported his decision to become a priest, they were reluctant to claim their inheritance. "At first the kids wouldn't take anything, so I had to divide it up," Ward says. He gave his house to his son Kevin, 38, a Seattle urologist with three kids. His daughter, Sheila, 40, a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, got the Porsche. Everything else, including the antique furniture, went to Tim, 41, a Seattle software engineer.

Ward has no regrets about giving everything away. "It no longer meant anything to me," he says. And although he does miss Norah, he isn't entirely without her company. "We chat daily, and I ask her to pray that God protects me," he says. He expects to be ordained in June, 1993 and go to work in a parish in Washington State. When that happens, he adds, "Norah will become a priest with me."

BILL SHAW in Hales Corners

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