History of Marriage Ministry in Chicago


 The early marriage movement was called the Cana Conference and originated in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Its beginnings are firmly implanted in the early Catholic Action Movement and in the national family renewal efforts. One such effort, that of Father John Delaney of Rochester, New York in 1942 marked the earliest record of the Chicago Cana movement.

 Edwin and Marge Kirwin of Oak Park had read of Father Delaney’s work in America magazine and invited him to conduct a marriage renewal day in Chicago. The participants were friends of the Kirwins and other couples active in the Catholic Action Movement from the North Shore area of the city. Eighteen couples gathered at Saint Mary of Providence High School on Chicago’s West Side. The enthusiasm generated by the conference gave impetus to the goal of making marriage renewal days available to other couples throughout the archdiocese. The support of two Chicago priests, Father James Voss and Father Julian Marhoefer was enlisted. Over the next two years, they promoted these renewal days for couples.

 In the autumn of 1944, Father Edward Dowling, S.J., of Saint Louis, was invited to Chicago to conduct a couples retreat. It was he who christened the movement The Cana Conference which was used to describe not only the day retreat, but also the growing movement itself. After being officially recognized in 1946 by Samuel Cardinal Stritch, Father John Egan was appointed the first Director of The Cana Conference of Chicago.

 The new director plunged into his work. He visited over 250 parishes and met with pastors and curates to explain the work of the conference. He unified the efforts of the archdiocese and brought together the West Side and North Side couples. Building on the foundation of Fathers Voss and Marhoefer, Father Egan recruited priests to be Cana Conductors and established Cana Conferences throughout the Archdiocese.

 That same year, several couples in Evanston promoted the idea of Cana Conferences for couples preparing for marriage, especially for the many GIs returning home from the war. The first PreCana conference grew from this concern. At first the number of participants was low, but later PreCana became an integral element in the ministry to the engaged offered by the Catholic Church in Chicago.

 In 1948, the archbishop entrusted a lay executive board with the management and control of Cana. Together with these couples, Father Egan institutionalized the Cana Conference, guaranteeing its continuance and the involvement of priests, doctors, and couples who would share themselves and their wisdom in this ministry.

 By 1951, nearly 75% of Catholics marrying within the Archdiocese of Chicago were attending a PreCana Conference. Between 1950 and 1960, about eighty Cana Days (marriage renewal days) were held annually in parishes in Chicago and the suburbs. In the same period, nearly 100 PreCanas were offered annually, serving the engaged couples throughout the archdiocese.

 Cana’s growth and popularity brought with it other needs, which were ably met by the new associate director, Father Walter Imbiorski, appointed in 1954. He began the difficult task of placing the many insights and wisdoms about marriage and its ministry into print. His first work, the Cana Manual, had a tremendous influence on marriage preparation and education throughout the United States. Over 80% of the marriage enrichment and preparation offices and ministries in other dioceses owe their inception to the efforts of the dedicated ministers of Cana of Chicago.

 In 1958, Father Egan was asked by the new archbishop, Cardinal Meyer, to become director of the recently formed Office of Urban Affairs. Father Imbiorski became the second director of Cana. Walter Imbiorski was a dynamic teacher, creatively fostering learning among the clergy and laity. Consultants and experts were frequently called upon to talk with the Cana presenters. These resource persons brought variety, excellence, and a desire to share in the work of Cana. The list of presenters included Hans Kung, Gustave Weigel, Margaret Mead, Karl Rahner, Richard Wesley, Edward Schillebeeckx, Henri Nouwen, and many others.

 The late 1950’s and early 1960’s were years of change and question within the church. The Second Vatican Council brought the winds of change to Chicago and to Cana. Reevaluation and renewal became the watch words of the day. In 1971, as Cana celebrated its 25th anniversary, the ministers of Cana recognized that the greatest challenge was maintaining the quality and relevance of its marriage enrichment and preparation programs, while responding to the many other needs brought to light by the council. The years that followed were ones of excitement, as well and confusion, echoing the feelings prevalent in the entire church.

 In 1975, Father Imbiorski resigned and Cardinal John Cody appointed the associate director, Father Thomas Hickey, the third director of Cana. His task was to revitalize, renew, and reorganize, reflecting the changes in the ministry of Cana. The efforts at marriage renewal, which started the movement in the 1940’s, had taken a back seat to the necessity and demand for more and better marriage preparation. The world was changing quickly, and with it marriage and family. The ministry to couples entering marriage needed to evolve for it to be effective and of true service.

Father Hickey recruited an entirely new generation of zealous, generous, and hardworking couples and priests to present a revamped PreCana Conference. He designed a weekend preparatory program modeled from the Marriage Encounter experience called Discovery Weekend. In conjunction with the ministry in the Hispanic community, Father Hickey renewed efforts to offer marriage preparation to the growing numbers of Hispanic couples within the Archdiocese. He encouraged parish based preparation programs, in which local parish couples assumed the ministry to the engaged, building a marriage community in the same effort.

 One of Father Hickey’s greatest contributions to the Cana Conference and to the Church of Chicago was his vision of greater depth and uniformity in marriage preparation throughout the over 440 parishes of the archdiocese. In 1978 and 1979, Father Hickey and other concerned priests developed The Pastoral Guidelines for Marriage Preparation for the Archdiocese of Chicago. The guidelines, ratified by the Presbyteral Senate and approved by the Archbishop, stated that the 14,000 couples who marry annually should spend a minimum of four months in active marriage preparation. During that time, a couple would take part in six sessions preparing them for Christian sacramental marriage. Now, more than ever, the ministry of Cana was focused on young couples entering marriage, who alike to a young couple in Galilee centuries ago, sought the blessing and help of the Lord.

 Implementing the new guidelines and organizing the Cana movement became the task of the next director, Father Bill Steinhauser, who was appointed by Cardinal Cody in 1980. His charge was to respond to the over 16,000 couples annually looking for a marriage preparation program from Cana. No other diocese in the United States ministered to so many couples entering marriage, as did Chicago; and no other diocese dealt with such a rich diversity in couples as Chicago!

 In the late 1970’s, Cardinal Cody commissioned Reverend James Flossi to create a ministry for individuals impacted by divorce. Named the Phoenix Ministry, it followed the recommendations set forth by Father James Young, a Paulist priest, in Boston. Led by the director, Eunice Dohra, Chicago  soon set national standards for effective divorce ministry with local support groups in parishes and an annual Phoenix Conference that provided education, networking, and spiritual healing for all who attended. Phoenix Ministry became an office in Family Ministries.

 In the spring of 1982 PreCana for the African–American community was launched. It was the first Catholic diocesan marriage preparation by and for African Americans. Three couples and a priest were the team that began meeting in November of 1981. The Family Ministries Office provided materials and offered general structure to the program, but the format, presentations, and spiritual elements were formed by the team.

 The Archdiocese recognized that Catholic marriages in parishes serving African Americans were lacking quality preparation. Often parish pastoral ministers would forgo the PreCana seminars provided by the Cana Conference because they were held in locations where few, if any, people of color were familiar, or they felt out of place if they were the only African Americans present. Also, the challenging messages quality marriage preparation presents could readily be dismissed as not pertinent to them by African Americans because the setting, the presenters, and the vast majority of the attendees were white.

 The initial team was made up of Father Tom McQuaid, Father Wilton Gregory (now archbishop of Atlanta), John and Pamela Ashford, Martin and Patricia Redd, and Andrew and Terri Lyke. The program evolved to include not just marriage preparation but also marriage enrichment. The program effectively filled the need for which it was created. Several PreCana seminars and marriage enrichment programs were scheduled in the earliest years.

However, the encroaching downward spiral of family life in American life took an especially severe toll on the African–American community. The steep and steady decline in weddings in those parishes that served predominantly African–American populations resulted in scheduling few programs. After 20 years the program was struggling. The program eventually ended due to lack of participation.

 In the early 1980’s the Cana Conference added many new programs to its list of offerings. Besides PreCana and Discovery Weekend, Cana presented programs designed for the many different needs of couples who comprise this local church: PreCana II  for couples marrying the second time with children; Special PreCana, for couples 30 years old or over, or for couples marrying a second time without children; Special Hispanic PreCana, for couples civilly married seeking convalidation; PreCana for the Black Community; Hispanic PreCana in English, for culturally Hispanic couples with English as a primary language; and parish marriage preparation programs, sponsored by local parishes, tied to Cana.

 In 1983, Cana once again returned to its original calling, marriage enrichment. Cana Enrichment Evenings were initiated and presented in several parishes around the archdiocese.

 These years also saw a change in Cana’s central office. The offices at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center were crowded with a marriage library and resource center, computerized terminals for conference reservations, and supplies coming in and going out for the over 300 conferences and training sessions Cana now annually presented. At the same time, Cana returned to its tradition of writing and publishing its own texts.

 Between 1981 and 1988, Cana printed the following texts for its own use, as well as for many other dioceses in the United States and Canada: A Ministry to Loving, Reflections on Marriage, A Marriage in the Lord, A Ministry to Marriage, Un Matrimonio en el Señor, and the Discovery Weekend Training Manual.

 A new era in the Church of Chicago began in 1984, when the Archbishop, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, gave permission for the members of the permanent diaconate to officiate at wedding services. Cana embarked upon an extensive training schedule to help ready the over 300 deacons and their wives for this very important ministry.

 In 1985, a long held dream for many within Cana came to light. The associate director, Mr. Francis Hannigan, was appointed by Cardinal Bernardin to be the fifth director of Cana. For the first time in its forty-year history, The Cana Conference of Chicago and the diocesan ministry to marriage would be directed by one who shared in the same vocation.

 Frank Hannigan set about integrating the newly developed resources into the marriage preparation programs. Modifying the existing Discovery Weekend outline to include a significant component on conflict management was indicative of the ongoing attempts to meet the evolving needs of the engaged.

 As more and more permanent deacons and their wives joined the ranks of presenters of the various marriage preparation programs, fewer priests were able to participate in the preparation programs. A new one day outline was developed and put into use, as couples’ lives became even busier.

 In 1991 as part of a major reorganization in the Archdiocese, Frank Hannigan was named Director of the Family Ministries Office, while retaining his responsibilities as Director of Cana.

 In 1994 Cana celebrated its 50th Anniversary with numerous former presenters present at the Liturgy at Holy Name Cathedral and the reception hosted at the Westin Hotel in Chicago. Msgr. Jack Egan, and many priests and couples from the earliest days of Cana were present at the festivities to share with the newer members of Cana a legacy of service and innovation.

 Throughout the 1990’s the outreach to the Hispanic Community continued to grow as did the Hispanic population in the Archdiocese. Alicia Rivera, Associate Director of the Family Ministries Office, often accompanied by her husband, Sebastian, a permanent deacon, traveled to all parts of the Archdiocese to train and enrich priests, deacons, and married couples working with the Hispanic community. Together they co–authored El Amor Nuestro de Cada Dia, a marriage preparation workbook used in Chicago and in many dioceses throughout the United States.

 Under the capable leadership of Andrew and Terri Lyke, PreCana for the African–American Community continued as a model of ministry for other dioceses throughout the country. The Lykes were often “on the road” sharing their story and assisting other dioceses to develop effective marriage preparation programs for African-American couples.

 Phoenix Ministry was redesigned and renamed Divorce Support Ministry when a new coordinator was hired in 1996. Elsie Mannix Radtke reevaluated the ministry, created a training program for divorce support group leaders, expanded the ministry to serve the Spanish speaking community, identified troubled marriage interventions, and rewrote the popular divorce manual, Divorce and Beyond. Over 40 parishes had active ministry to the divorced.

 Working with the Metropolitan Tribunal as a volunteer Field Advocate led to formation of the Annulment Support Ministry in 2000 a help for petitioners and respondents to complete the declaration of nullity process and allow a future for marriage in the Church.  Volunteers from parishes were trained to provide assistance and educate people in what the process is, how paperwork needs to be completed, and generally providing spiritual support. Other dioceses were trained in Chicago and set up parallel ministries in their locales.

 In 1999 the first Archdiocesan Mass for Divorced Catholics was offered at Holy Name Cathedral with Cardinal Francis George presiding and Reverend Richard Sparks, CSP, serving as homilist. Over 800 people attended.

 In 2005 the PreCana II marriage preparation program was renamed Stepfamily Ministry. Elements of divorce ministry are involved in the stepfamily marriage preparation process.

 By 2012, the ministry was expanding in the Spanish speaking communities and Maryvel Torres was assigned coordinate the Divorce and Annulment Support Ministries in the Family Ministries Office when Elsie Radtke retired.

 Also in 1999 the Family Ministries Office created a coordinator position to focus on the growing need for a more comprehensive ministerial outreach for marriage. The then current guidelines were 20 years old and did not include the new rising technology of the Internet, email, etc. The guidelines focused on marriage preparation and gave little attention to the preparation needed long before the engagement, and the aftercare needed after the wedding, especially in the early years of marriage. It was also recognized that there was need for couples to better plan their weddings to be a celebration of God’s infinite love, an event not just for themselves, but also for their families, friends, community and the Church. Redressing the marriage preparation guidelines was also an opportunity to examine marriage preparation in the Archdiocese and institute best practices.

 The new focus on marriage resulted in the writing of In the Spirit of Cana: Guidelines for Pastoral Outreach to Christian Marriage—Formation, Preparation, Celebration, and Continuing Education. The new marriage ministry guidelines focused on that time from birth through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood when our cultural understanding and expectations of marriage are shaped. It refined the PreCana and Discovery programs to function in a context that included a premarital inventory that gave engaged couples the opportunity to more deeply invest in their marriage preparation. It outlined a comprehensive process to guide pastoral ministers in their pastoral care of couples in the varied scenarios and profiles of engaged couples.

 The new marriage ministry guidelines went even further to offer assistance to engaged couples, their families, and pastoral ministers in planning the wedding. An important goal to “assist couples preparing for marriage to understand the wedding liturgy and to use the options that are available for a prayerful and joyful celebration of their marriage,” among others, was articulated to invite the engaged couples to fully participate in the planning of the wedding.

 The attention to aftercare is a hallmark of the document. The inclusion of the parish and community as stakeholders in the life of the marriage sets the stage for a fresh look at the institution of marriage as a reflection of God not just for the couple and their family, but also the whole of society. It articulates the symbiotic relationship between the marriage and the community. Strong marriages form strong families, which form strong communities, which form strong marriages.

 The document includes appendices that make it an accessible resource for all involved in marriage ministry in the Church. It includes succinct explanations of diriment impediments to marriage in the Church, dialogue aids for pastoral ministers working with engaged couples, options for Natural Family Planning, general resources for strengthening marriages, and even a glossary of terms to help the reader better understand some of the ecclesial language.

 The document was drafted by a team headed by the Marriage Ministry Coordinator. That team included pastors, a canon lawyer, marriage ministers, and Family Ministries’ staff. Francis Cardinal George, the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago gave important assistance in making the text a credible document of the Church, while keeping the vision and innovation expressed by the writing team.

 In the same spirit that produced the new marriage ministry guidelines, Family Ministries made use of the electronic media in developing innovation in marriage ministry. The monthly e-newsletter First Years and Forever addresses common issues in the earliest years of married life; a premarital inventory, now the Catholic Couple Checkup is taken online; and the Family Ministries website uses cutting–edge technology.

 As the 1990’s came to an end and a new century began Cana continued its legacy of leadership in the areas of marriage preparation and enrichment. Andrew Lyke was hired to work full time on supporting and enriching the married couples throughout the archdiocese.

 In recent years there have been many changes to marriage preparation. A Marriage in the Lord is in its 6th edition and was substantially rewritten and updated in 2014 through the work of Frank Hannigan, Kim Hagerty, and Mary Jo Pedersen, author of For Better, For Worse, For God: Exploring the Holy Mystery of Marriage. It’s also now printed in full color. El Amor Nuestro y el Sacramento del Matrimonio was also completely revised. Couples attending PreCana receive a Marriage Moments and Memories, a beautiful color perpetual marriage calendar updated and designed by Kim Hagerty.

 Demographics and society keep changing, and so do our marriage preparation classes. In 2015 the number of couples marrying in the church in Chicago numbered about 6,000. Sadly, Discovery Weekend was discontinued after too few couples felt they had the time to attend a weekend program. PreCana in English is now offered as a one–day class taught by a volunteer presenter couple; everyone takes the same class and then couples are encouraged to customize their PreCana experience by watching videos on our website that relate to their unique situation, blending the best of traditional gathered events with online learning. Topics covered in the videos developed by our office include:

·        Unique Challenges of Military Couples

·        Cohabitation

·        Forming a Stepfamily

·        Children of Divorce

·        Second Marriages

·        Interfaith and Interchurch Marriages

·        Strengthening African American Catholic Marriages, and

·        Ceremony Planning.

 In 2012 we recognized the need to provide online marriage prep for couples separated by distance, and developed the first of its kind online on–demand marriage prep, This unique online class has been taken by over 10,000 couples in the US and 52 countries around the world. It’s offered in English and Spanish and is captioned for the Deaf and hard of hearing. Most of our Natural Family Planning outreach is also online now, with over 2500 couples having taken in English and Spanish. The classes consist of videos, worksheets, questions for discussion, and a premarital inventory, the Catholic Couple Checkup and is very positively received by the couples that choose to, or have to, take an online marriage prep class.

 In 2013 the name of the office was changed to Marriage and Family Ministries to more accurately describe our work.

 It was a call to service initiated by the Catholic Action Movement in the 40’s which gave birth to the Cana Conference, and it was the winds of change and renewal from the Second Vatican Council in the 60’s which gave this ministry further impetus and direction. It truly is the dedicated individuals who make the dreams become reality. The leaders have their names mentioned within the brief written histories. But they know those whose names are not recorded have done yeoman’s labor: those who gave conferences in school and parish halls on bitterly cold or sweltering hot days; those who were patient in the face of immaturity, forgiving in the face of anger; those who gave weekend after weekend to countless couples so that the waters of a relationship would turn into the rich wines of marriage.

 Their words are recalled where it is important: in the minds and hearts of the hundreds of thousands who have attended—at a dinner table, in the supermarket, in the midst of an argument, or as the lights are turned out at the end of another day—whether these or similar words are spoken, “Remember what they told us at our PreCana?”