After 39 Years of Marriage, Widower and Doctor Enters the Priesthood
“You will never guess what happened to me on my way here,” Fr. Lawrence Love said to his intrigued hosts, parishioners of his parish at St. Peter the Apostle in Mineola, Texas. “I was driving on the loop to get here when I saw an ambulance up ahead beginning to pull out onto the road. As I pulled up behind it, I noticed a container on the bumper fall onto the shoulder! I drove over to it and called 911 to let the dispatcher know the ambulance dropped something. As I explained the situation, shock came into my voice as I looked through the clear container. It was a human toe!”
“‘Stay put,’ the dispatcher said. ‘We’ll send a toe-truck over there ASAP.’” Fr. Love chuckled as a burst of rolling laughter filled the dining room. How exactly is this priest so good at spontaneous puns and dad jokes? Well, he is a dad. He also spent most of his life as a husband, military officer, and doctor.
Fr. Love’s mother and father married on his father’s 21st birthday in 1944. A year later on that same day, he was born and soon baptized in St. Paul, Minnesota, his father’s hometown. The Love family lived there for only a month, as his father, Warren Henry Love, was in the Navy and moved often. When he returned from World War II in the fall of 1945, he took leave, and then they were transferred to Corpus Christi, Texas.
“We were there for less than two years. We moved to Pensacola; then to Hawaii for three years; to Key West, Florida; New Orleans; Monterrey, California, and the San Francisco Bay area, as well as San Diego; then Dayton, Ohio, and Maryland. I remember it all. So, when I’m asked where I’m from, I say I grew up in the United States,” Fr. Love recalled.
Wherever they lived, his parents made a sacrifice to enroll him and his two younger siblings in Catholic schools if they could.
“One thing I will always remember about them is the fact that they were married for 68 years after dating for only six weeks. They committed themselves to each other; they had a great marriage. My dad’s flight training was in Daytona Beach, Florida, my mother’s hometown, where they met in 1943. After he was sent to Oregon for further training before going overseas in World War II, she told her father that she was going to Oregon to be with him—at 17 years of age! After they married, my mom, who was raised as a Baptist, went to live with her mother-in-law in Minnesota, where she received instructions and converted to the Catholic faith,” Fr. Love said.
Ever since he was in the seventh grade, he always knew he wanted to be a doctor.
“I wavered a little bit during my freshman year of college, but once I got a job in a hospital as an orderly, that cemented it for me. I was doing gross stuff for patients, like changing adult diapers and other basic things. I figured if I could do that kind of work, I could do anything in medicine,” Fr. Love chuckled.
He chose ophthalmology because it’s very precise, with a nice blend of surgery and internal medicine (understanding how medical conditions affect the eyes). He enjoyed discovering medical conditions through the eyes of patients.
“I also loved performing cataract surgery. It was so precise. The eye is such an amazing manifestation of God’s creative wonder. Psalm 139 says we “are fearfully and wonderfully made,” Fr. Love said.
After high school, he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he met Nancy, his future wife, on the second day of college in 1963. She and her mother hosted a potluck for the new students at the parish church of St. Thomas Moore. They wouldn’t start dating for another four years.
“After college graduation in 1967, I went to medical school at the University of Miami. In 1968 we got married,” Fr. Love shared. “I graduated from medical school in 1971, and then after a one-year internship, I joined the Air Force. We came to Texas for four months so I could train to be a flight surgeon.”
“Then I was assigned to McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando, Florida. It was closed in one year, so I was transferred to Tucson, Arizona, for a year and a half. Afterward, I came back to San Antonio, Texas, to do my residency in Ophthalmology for three years. We then transferred to Washington, D.C., at Andrews Air Force Base. Finally, I came out here to look at a practice in Paris, Texas, and it was enticing. So that’s where we set up house,” Fr. Love recited as if it were a litany of his life.
We didn’t have our first child until four years into our marriage. Andy was born in February of 1972. Charlotte came along just a bit more than a year later. It was the best thing in the world for us to have the children be so close in age,” Fr. Love said.
Including step-grandchildren, Fr. Love has 12 grandchildren and a few great-grandchildren. Not very usual for a priest.
“A year and a half after we got married, Nancy had a major mental breakdown and had to be hospitalized. She received shock treatments. That was the beginning of the rollercoaster ride into schizophrenia,” Fr. Love explained.
“She had breakdowns with regularity every several years, so at first, when the kids were toddlers, it was quite difficult for them as she would be hospitalized at times for a month or six weeks. Her mother or one of my parents were able to come and help us. You do what you must do. We just needed to make sure she was taking the medicine to keep her mind in check. If she stopped taking her medicine, she would lose touch with reality and become delusional. I felt like a policeman or bad guy, because I insisted she take the medicine that she, at times, hated,” Fr. Love said.
The medication had side effects and the medication for the side effects had side effects. It’s an awful disease, he shared. Caring for Nancy did not come easily. When she was doing well, she was a great mother and should have full credit for raising their kids.
In July of 2007, she died unexpectedly from a pulmonary embolism.
“We had known since early 2005 that she had Alzheimer’s disease, and I look on her death as a blessing for her because the trajectory she was on was going rapidly downhill into the black hole of dementia. It was a relief that she still knew who we were, and she didn’t lose awareness of who she was. I saw her mother and father suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Her mother was bedridden for more than a year. I didn’t want that for Nancy. I think God just said to her, ‘I am not going to let you go through that. This is enough.’ God has his reasons,” Fr. Love recalled.
Two years after his wife passed away, in January of 2009, he and another fellow from Paris began formation to become permanent deacons, a five-year formation process.
“There were people who would ask me if this was a rebound from Nancy’s death or if I was still grieving. I just felt called. You know, God has plans for us, but sometimes his plans don’t come to fruition for a long time,” Fr. Love emphasized. “A lot of boys in grade and high school think about the priesthood and decide, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’ I didn’t really think that way. We were encouraged to think about it, but I knew I’d be a doctor, husband, and father. In the back of God’s mind, I’m sure he was like, “Well, you are going to be a priest, too. Just on an unusual path.“
By Easter of 2009, he found himself researching seminaries and the priesthood after work. He wondered what this was, so he took it to spiritual direction with his pastor, Fr. Morgan White. He did not fight the call to the priesthood but knew it was going to be a huge change for him, as well as for everyone in his practice.
“There were two of us doctors in my practice who performed surgeries, and it was going to make a difference on the income of that practice if I left. I went on retreat, talked to Bishop Corrada, and prayed. ‘If you want me to be a priest, make it evident so that I can do what I need to do,’” Fr. Love asked the Lord.
While making a discernment retreat at the Benedictine Abbey in Subiaco, Arkansas, in June of 2009, he spoke with a priest who helped him discern God’s wishes.
“I got there on Sunday evening and left on Friday, but on Wednesday, I said to the priest, ‘I know that God wants me to do this.’ It just came to me. The priest told me, ‘I know.'”
By the end of that month, Fr. Love was accepted as a seminarian for the Diocese of Tyler, but he needed time to inform his patients of his impending departure, finish their surgeries, and oversee their postoperative period. By June of 2010, he stopped practicing medicine.
“They cried. I cried. I’d seen some of these patients for over thirty years – even five generations of one family! I was assigned as a seminarian to my parish in Paris. Then I left in August to make my way to the seminary. I went by way of Nashville to visit my brother, then my sister in Washington, and my old college roommate in New York City until I reached Pope Saint John XXIII National Seminary in Boston,” Fr. Love said.
“When I was there Pope John XXIII was only a blessed, not yet a saint. In 2014, I went to his, and Pope Saint John Paul II’s, canonization in Rome. It was awesome! Not everyone in the seminary went, but along with a group of about thirty of us, I felt I had to go.” Fr. Love said with a chuckle.
He loved being in seminary, and it was interesting to go back into an academic environment after forty years. It’s a special seminary that is oriented to priestly formation for older men who have late vocations. He was ordained in June of 2014 at the tender age of 69.
Being a husband and biological father has helped him to become a spiritual father.
“Knowing what people are dealing with in the real world, like with penitents especially, has made all the difference. In the confessional, people have said it helps that I have the background of being a husband, father, grandfather, and doctor. Sometimes, I’ve said, ‘Well, you know, I was married for 40 years. I understand.’ And they’ll say, ‘Wow!’ The parishioners all know.”
Between his clerical duties, meeting with parish groups, celebrating daily Mass, hearing confessions, and all the joys of the priesthood, Fr. Love is a priest whom his parishioners count on as a friend, grandfather-figure, and Christ-like example. He knows what it’s like to live in the family and takes that experience into his ministry—just as Jesus did. Whether that means sitting with a grieving family, reassuring someone in a crisis of faith, or sharing a couple of jokes around parishioners’ dinner table, he lets the Lord guide his heart to serve his community.