Love and loss in the shadows: children of priests try to connect with their fathers

Ruth Thieme with her father the Rev. Wolfgang Shulte-Berge
Ruth Thieme with her father, the Rev. Wolfgang Shulte-Berge.

A priest’s daughter forges an unusual relationship with her father

Ruth Thieme felt close to her adoptive mother and father growing up in university towns in California and Arizona. But the fact that her biological parents gave her up always bothered her, even though her adoptive parents assured her that the reasons were benign.

“Being adopted made me feel unwanted or thrown away, or that somehow I wasn’t good enough,” said Thieme, now 35. “Why would someone give their baby away?”

When she turned 18 and her parents told her that her real father was a Catholic priest working in a small parish outside Cologne, Germany, she understood her biological parents’ decision better, and decided she wanted to meet them.

“I didn’t know what I wanted from them,” she said. “I just wanted to meet them and ask for any genetic markers in case I wanted to have children. I didn’t know whether I wanted a relationship.”

Advertisement

Her initial meeting with the Rev. Wolfgang Shulte-Berge in 2000 would prove to be the catalyst for an unusually close father-daughter relationship that would span the next 12 years and unfold in countries throughout Europe.

“He was always gung-ho” about connecting with his daughter, Thieme said. “The minute I was there, he was a part of my life.”

Still, Shulte-Berge insisted on keeping their relationship a secret, until shortly before his death four years ago, a condition that Thieme readily accepted.

Advertisement

“He was in this tiny town with maybe 5,000 or 7,000 people, and I knew that if word got out, it would ruin his reputation,” Thieme said. “I cared more about the relationship with my father than whether it was a secret of not.”

Shulte-Berge did his best to answer all Thieme’s questions, explaining that her adoption was intended to be an act of compassion after he confessed to another priest that he was involved with a woman who was pregnant.

Shulte-Berge said the priest — with the approval of their bishop — quietly arranged to have a Catholic couple adopt the child. That couple, Thieme’s parents, were college professors working in Germany who would soon return to the United States.

During the decade after Thieme met her father, Shulte-Berge flew to the United States four or five times and visited his daughter. And once a year she would meet him in Europe for a two-week vacation, when they would travel together, talk endlessly, and try to make up for the years they had lost.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Almost always, their conversations centered on Shulte-Berge’s desire to be a father as well as a priest. In the early 1960s, Shulte-Berge explained, he was one of many young priests who believed — incorrectly — that the celibacy rule would soon be lifted, allowing them to marry and have families.

Since her father’s death, Thieme has married and has had a son who carries her biological father’s name, Byron Wolfgang Best. She has stayed in touch with her biological mother, while continuing to meet more members of his father’s family.

“Before he passed, he let his entire family know he had a child,” Thieme said. “It was something he didn’t want to do until it was close to the time he was going to pass because there are people in his family who are older and still very conservative.” Shulte-Berge also insisted that local authorities issue Thieme a new birth certificate, one with his name listed as her father.

Thieme, a practicing Catholic, has become an advocate for abolishing the celibacy rule for Catholic clergy, something her father had hoped would happen in his lifetime. “He wanted me to do whatever I could that was in my power to talk about this,” she said.

She thought it was true love, but the priest chose the Church over the mother of his child

Advertisement

Renate Hilda Waltraud Brandt thought her lover, a Catholic priest, would be happy when she told him she was pregnant back in 1969. The two had a bond that had endured a two-year separation while the Rev. Alois Ober did missionary work in Madagascar.

“At that time, there were a lot of people in the ministry who were rebelling against celibacy,” said Brandt, then a committed socialist living in Germany. “There were quite a few priests who left the priesthood because of it.”

She thought Ober might be one of them.

But, after fantasizing together about having a child before she was pregnant, Ober reacted negatively to the news that he would be a father, and soon made it clear that he was not about to give up the priesthood.

From then on, Brandt and her young daughter lived at the margins, depending on how generous Ober was feeling. The priest would make occasional visits to Brandt and little Nicole, but, before long, the adults were arguing over child support.

“When I asked him for help, he was so arrogant,” Brandt said, adding that Ober was reluctant to provide more than modest support even though he ran a lucrative business on the side.

Eventually, a friend helped persuade Ober to provide give more, as Brandt and her daughter embarked on a nomadic life, living in experimental, communal households in Germany, Austria, and even India.

“We moved around all the time,” said Nicole Brandt, who uses the name “Presence” now. “By the time I was 14, I had been to 14 different schools.”

By then, Brandt and her daughter had moved to Northern California, where they were frequent visitors at an Oregon commune run by a controversial guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

Ober objected to Brandt’s involvement with the commune, but they stayed in touch, and Brandt and her daugher always kept Ober’s identity a secret.

“No one knew he was a priest,” Nicole Brandt later wrote in her journal.

Over time, however, Nicole Brandt grew disenchanted with her father’s occasional letters and yearned for a closer connection.

“The letters he wrote to me felt like carbon copies of one another,” she said. “I told him I’d love to have a more intimate conversation and he never responded to that.”

Nicole Brandt said she made two serious suicide attempts during her teen years as she struggled with the feeling that she was unworthy, in part because of her absent father.

“Growing up, you want to have a meaningful relationship with your father and feel that you matter, and I didn’t have a lot of that,” she said.

As an adult, Nicole Brandt made peace with her father and began visiting him in Germany every couple of years around Christmas. But, in 2007, when she arrived at his home, she learned that Ober had been hospitalized with a serious illness. That’s when she learned the limits of what it means to be a secret daughter.

“My father was a closed book,” Nicole said. “He saw to it that none of his family members, including his mother, father, sisters, and brothers, ever met or knew of me.”

When she was introduced to her uncle as Ober’s daughter, she said his reaction was a challenge: “Do you have any proof?”

Ober died later that day and left a large estate, though very little went to Nicole Brandt. More distressing, she said, is the fact that Ober’s relatives — her relatives — prevented her from going through her father’s belongings, depriving her of the chance to learn more about him.

As Nicole Brandt wrote in her journal: “Of all the wealth he possessed, this was the most important thing of all to me — to be able to go through his home, his personal belongings, and perhaps find some clues as to who he was and what he valued.”

This priest married and fathered children, with no regrets

It was Flag Day, June 14, 1969, and the Rev. William J. Manseau arrived at the house on Boston Street, a stone’s throw from St. Margaret Church in Dorchester, with a sense of rising anticipation. But he was taken aback when he found a crowd of reporters waiting for him, even though their presence should have come as no surprise.

“Are you the priest? The one who’s getting married?” the reporters all seemed to ask.

“I am,” Manseau replied.

A short while later, Manseau and his wife-to-be, Mary Doherty, a former nun, were married in the crowded living room of Doherty’s childhood home. Three of Manseau’s fellow priests officiated at the ceremony, witnessed by friends and family members who later celebrated during a reception at Florian Hall.

“I came to this juncture by realizing that in order to be true to the gospel I had to enter into the deepest relationship possible with another Christian,” Manseau said to a Globe reporter at the time.

But, despite the public nature of his wedding, the church never censured Manseau in any formal way, even though the penalty at the time was instant excommunication. As far as he’s concerned, he’s still a priest, though he does not wear a clerical collar and the church does not permit him to say Mass in a Catholic church, because he’s married and has a family.

“I’ve been a Catholic priest for 56 years,” said Manseau, who has also served as a minister in Protestant churches and maintains a pastoral counseling practice in Nashua, N.H. He is still married to Mary, and together they have raised two sons and a daughter.

Manseau has also played an active role in several organizations that represent Catholic clergymen who have married publicly, raised families, and are seeking to be formally reinstated as Catholic priests.

“It’s common sense,” he said, noting the shortage of Catholic priests worldwide. “You have trained personnel able to provide a service that really benefits a lot of people.”

The argument in favor of letting married men serve as priests rarely focuses on the taboo subject of the children of priests, and the hardships they endure when forced to keep their fathers’ identity a secret.

By contrast, the children of priests like Manseau who marry the mothers of their children appear to have more satisfying lives.

One of Manseau’s sons, Peter, wrote a book affirming the road taken by his parents: “Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son.” And in 2007, at the annual conference of the organization Corpus, which promotes the idea of married Catholic clergy, several children of former priests who have married and raised families spoke glowingly of how well things can go for children of priests whose fathers decide to openly marry and have families.

“They’ve been raised in loving homes,” said Manseau, a past president of Corpus. “That’s what does it.”

Loading comments...

Related