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Eleven long-married couples gathered in a semicircle around the temporary altar in the Montgomery City Knights of Columbus Hall.
Father Ernest Dike extended his hands and called down a blessing over them.
“Lord, in their struggles, let them rejoice that You are near to help them,” he prayed. “In their needs, let them know that You are there to rescue them. In their joys, let them see that You are the source and completion of every happiness.”
It was Immaculate Conception Parish’s annual Valentine’s Day Mass and luncheon for couples who have been married 50 years or more.
Those who attended brought to the altar and the table over 1,000 years of combined married experience.
“It’s wonderful that we are gathered here today to give thanks to God for the gift of love, for the gift of marriage, for the gift of good health and for the gift of family,” said Fr. Dike.
A missionary priest of the Diocese of Orlu, Nigeria, Fr. Dike is serving as the modified temporary Parochial Administrator of Immaculate Conception Parish in Montgomery City, St. Patrick Parish in Jonesburg and Church of the Resurrection Parish in Wellsville.
He said the couples at the Mass are living witnesses that it is possible to stay married for decades while growing in love and respect for one another with God’s continued help.
“You are all a living encyclopedia of what marriage is,” the priest stated. “You have seen the good, the bad and the ugly, and you have shown the virtue of perseverance and held tenaciously to the faith that God has granted to you.”
Fr. Dike said the couples’ durable commitment to marriage and parenthood is a sign of hope to all people, “that those who trust in God and believe in Him, those who choose to remain faithful will always recognize His blessings in their lives.”
He thanked the couples for being such a clear sign of hope, through good and bad times, to the whole parish.
“We pray that the Good Lord will continue to sustain you in your marriage, your happiness, your love for another, and bless you with good health,” he said.
Later in the Mass, the people joined Fr. Dike in praying for all married couples, including those who for health reasons could not be there — “that the Good Lord will sustain their marriage and continue to grant them the grace, the wisdom, the faith and the perseverance to testify with their lives that the Good Lord loves us.”
They also prayed for all who are seeking marriage and for everyone who is discerning a possible calling to Priesthood or religious life.
“May the Good Lord continue to sustain their faith and continue to call them to Himself,” Fr. Dike prayed.
“Forever to go”
After Mass, the people adjourned to a large table adorned with flowers, candles and candy, place cards, muffins and fruit, china and glasses, and placemats and Valentine’s Day cards made by the children of Immaculate Conception School.
Fellow parishioners prepared and served baked ham, green beans, potatoes and quiche.
A lavishly decorated, heart-shaped cake was served for dessert.
Organizers packed up several meals and delivered them to long-married couples who were homebound or otherwise unable to travel to the event.
Humor and lightheartedness permeated the luncheon. Parishioner Jerry Witthaus, master of ceremonies, played music, shared jokes and threw out a few conversation starters.
Most of the husbands and wives showed that they hold pristine recollections of their first date and early courtship.
The meal concluded with a toast, but the music and visiting continued.
The couples were photographed with a Valentine backdrop and as a group with Fr. Dike near the altar.
Each couple in the photos held a sign with their names and how long they’ve been married, in the manner of: “50 years down, forever to go!”
A new day, every day
The couples spent time bantering, laughing and reflecting about how to achieve a long and happy marriage.
“Learning to give and not always have to have things your own way,” said Carole Bainbridge, who has been married to Richard for 56 years.
“Give and take,” stated Leroy Hanneken, who has been married to Betty for 60 years. “I think you’ve got to share and have a lot of patience.”
Mrs. Bainbridge believes praying together and going to church as a family is what has kept her and her husband together.
“Absolutely!” Mr. Bainbridge agreed.
Others pointed to the benefits of having a good listening ear, a thick skin and a sense of humor.
“Some days, you want to say something, and some days you just have to shut your mouth and listen!” said Mr. Witthaus, who has been married to Dianne for 46 years.
Mrs. Hanneken said a couple should never go to bed angry at each other.
“If you do, then you’ll dwell on it all night and get up the next morning and still have bad feelings,” she said.
Ron and Dianne Talley have been married for 50 years.
“Nowadays, you can get out of it too easily if you want to,” said Mr. Talley. “So you’ve got to want it to work, and you’ve got to make it work.”
Someone nearby responded, “Amen!”
Mrs. Talley said she prays for her husband’s safety when he’s out working.
Mr. Witthaus said it’s important to pray for patience.
“You have to give every situation some time,” he said, “because if you speak before you get a chance to think about it, you’ll say things you can’t take back.”
He and Mrs. Witthaus make a point of praying the Rosary together.
“There’s nothing like being able to tell your children that you prayed for them today,” said Mrs. Witthaus.
“Love never fails”
The Valentine’s Day event has been an Immaculate Conception Parish tradition since 2010.
Parishioners Aggie Balldetti, Debbie Heidelberger and Mrs. Talley and the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society conference organized the event.
Leading the music at Mass were guitarist and vocalist Dottie Brueggen and pianist Debbie Heidelberger.
Immaculate Conception School Principal Dana Schroeder said that for the students, making the cards and placemats was time well spent, because celebrating solid marriages is important.
“We feel that in the world we live in today, our students need to see that when married couples follow the example of Christ, their chosen vocation can endure many obstacles,” she said.