(Editor’s note: The Catholic Messenger is publishing a series on the Tribunal of the Diocese of Davenport. This is the third article in the series.)
By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Tom and Sharon Hegewald first walked down the aisle together in 1978 — as a groomsman and bridesmaid — at the wedding of Tom’s brother and Sharon’s girlfriend. Neither remembered each other until 22 years later when they met for the second time, on a date. Both had been married and divorced and took time getting to know each other before walking down the aisle as husband and wife on March 23, 2002 in a Christian church in Williamsburg.
Sharon, who had never been baptized, attended Mass regularly with Tom because she knew his Catholic faith was an integral part of his life. He had received an annulment of his previous marriage years earlier and yearned to have a Catholic wedding with Sharon so that he could return to receiving the sacraments.
The Catholic Church teaches that the nature of marriage is sacred and recognizes marriages between two non-Catholics as valid if neither partner had been previously married. Tom could not receive the sacraments unless Sharon received an annulment of her previous marriage. She wasn’t ready, yet. “I thought there were too many rules in the Catholic Church.”
She and Tom continued to pray together at home and attend Mass each weekend at St. Wenceslaus Church in Iowa City or St. Mary Church in Williamsburg. One day, a friend talked to Tom about Divine Mercy Sunday and he began reading the Diary of St. Faustina, whose faith experiences inspired the feast day. Tom began to reflect more deeply on his Catholic faith. His yearning to receive the sacraments intensified. Sharon agreed to pursue an annulment. “I was willing to do it for my husband, who had been away from the sacraments for 14 years.”
Some profound spiritual encounters led to Sharon’s decision. On their wedding anniversary, they were visiting the Basilica of St. Fidelis, known as “The Cathedral on the Plains” in Victoria, Kansas. While Tom was outdoors talking with the basilica’s gardener, Sharon was inside, praying before the Blessed Sacrament. “The Holy Spirit came down on me and I was like a different person,” she recalled.
Later, the couple experienced an unexpected but treasured reunion in a downpour in Missouri. Tom and Sharon had pulled up to a house to seek directions to the home of Sharon’s daughter and granddaughter, from whom she had been estranged. “A van pulled up beside us and it was my daughter and granddaughter,” Sharon said. They had come to drop off a book at the house where Tom and Sharon stopped.
After those experiences, Sharon and Tom contacted Father Gary Beckman, then pastor of St. Wenceslaus Parish, to begin the paperwork to pursue an annulment. Sharon had to provide a short history of the courtship, marriage and breakup of her previous marriage. As the petitioner, she also needed to provide three witnesses who could testify to the events pertinent to the case.
“A petition for nullity (an annulment) is handled like any other court case, meaning that the parties are entitled to representation before the Tribunal. They can call witnesses and provide evidence, and each party has a chance to review this evidence before a judgement is rendered,” said Father Paul Appel, the diocese’s judicial vicar.
Sharon described the questions on the questionnaire as grueling. “It was very personal, which they said it has to be.” She wanted to forget the divorce and the painful memories associated with her previous marriage. A diocesan brochure acknowledges that some questions “may cause you to recall aspects of the relationship which were not pleasant.” But the diocese hopes that each petitioner’s experience will be like that of “most petitioners, who find a final sense of relief in relating their complete story to a caring Church body who wants to assist you in every way possible toward a favorable resolution of your plight.”
Tom and Sharon experienced that compassion — with Father Beckman and Sister Theresa Kruml, OSU, of St. Wenceslaus and Father Appel and Beth Blough, the Tribunal auditor. “Beth is a tremendous resource,” Tom said. “She has an excellent way of presenting information. She does it professionally and compassionately. She knows what the person on the other end of the (phone) line is going through.”
“We field many calls from clients inquiring into the status of their case,” Beth said, questions such as, “Have all of the witnesses responded?” “Anything else needed?” “I’m having trouble completing my testimony, can I schedule an interview?” The calls pick up especially when one of the spouses is waiting to join the Church or the couple is planning to marry in the Church and wants to set a date.
“One of the most rewarding aspects of Tribunal work is the healing effects that the annulment process brings about,” Beth said. “For those that put in the time and effort — the graces that come at the end are multiplied and visible and lead to an increased spiritual growth and awareness.”
Sharon and Tom were mushroom hunting on the day in May of 2015 when Father Beckman notified them that Sharon’s annulment had been granted. She was as much relieved as grateful. What she hadn’t anticipated was her own spiritual growth and awareness — which along with her love for her husband — led her to enter the Catholic Church.
First, she needed to receive instruction from Sister Theresa, with Tom providing support. “I already knew so much about the Catholic Church because I had been going to Mass with Tom all of these years,” Sharon said. She entered the Catholic Church on Nov. 21, 2015, the same day that she and Tom celebrated their Catholic wedding at St. Wenceslaus.
“It brings tears to my eyes that we can go to Mass together and accept the Lord together and all the sacraments,” Sharon said. “It’s not something we take for granted,” Tom said. “It’s a very unique part of the marriage.”
“The greatest joy of Tribunal work is that it is done for the salvation of souls,” Beth said. “We are one small piece of God’s plan. It keeps us coming back.”