Men find a way to come back to the spirit

by Bob Kerr / Providence Journal / Providence RI / October 1998

John Walsh is a Catholic priest from North Kingstown who, like thousands of other Catholic priests, got married.

His church always told him that once a man is a priest, he is always a priest. He took the words to heart. He still feels the calling.

So he still does some of the things priests do, although he is no longer recognized as a priest by the church. He conducts Bible study and does Sunday scripture readings. He stays close to the spirit of the priesthood, if not to its official trappings.

And when people call seeking a priest for a wedding or other ceremony, he refers them. Uncomfortable doing those ceremonies himself, he refers them to Rent A Priest.

``I think it calls men who have a skill and a talent back to what they were called to originally,'' says Walsh.

With a name that smacks more of used cars than religion, Rent A Priest is a free married-priest referral service for people who might be having trouble finding a priest or who want a ceremony conducted outside the restrictions of the Catholic church. It draws on the abilities of men who, in addition to their formal training and experience, have learned what it means to have a wife and, maybe, children.

The only thing those calling Rent A Priest have to accept is that, while the services provided are legal, they are not recognized by the Catholic church.

``That doesn't seem to bother them,'' says Walsh.

John Walsh was headed for the priesthood early. He was an altar boy when he was in the fifth grade at Blessed Sacrament School in Providence. All three of his sisters became nuns.

He was ordained in 1954, in Providence. He served in Providence, Central Falls and Newport.

He left the priesthood in 1977.

``I had met someone,'' he says. ``We didn't get married. I actually married another woman. We were divorced after five years.''

There was no going back to the priesthood. Walsh sold real estate, worked as a radio dispatcher at the South Kingstown Police Department, worked at the Smith Hill Center, in Providence, and then went back to real estate.

He never really left the church. He just surrendered to something natural that the church doesn't consider natural for a priest.

After making the very tough decision to give up the thing he had spent most of his life either doing or preparing to do, he joined CORPUS -- the Corps of Reserve Priests for Service. CORPUS supports a renewed priesthood that includes women and married men.

Then, about six years ago, he learned about Louise Haggett and Rent A Priest.

Haggett lives in Framingham, Mass., has a background in advertising and sales and says she was a real ``pray, pay and obey'' Catholic. Then came the day she went looking for a priest to visit her mother at an assisted-living center in Maine. She found a priest hard to come by.

She did some research and found one reason for the shortage was the more than 20,000 priests who had gotten married. She did a lot of traveling, met with many of these men and found the desire but not always the inclination to reclaim what they had.

``I spent the last six years nudging them back into the priesthood,'' she says.

She has a directory of priests available for a variety of services, including Bible study, funerals, weddings, baptisms, visits to the sick and in-home masses. She calls the directory God's Yellow Pages.

``This is not a protest organization,'' she says. ``It's a ministry.

For John Walsh, who is now 68, it remains a way to stay close to something he dearly loves.

``I'll be involved, that's my nature,'' he says. ``Plus, I'm a stubborn Irishman. That adds to it.''

The number to call is (800) PRIEST9.

Bob Kerr can be reached by E-mail at

Copyright 1998 The Providence Journal Company