Interfaith couple focuses on similarities of their faiths

Nelsons will co-lead workshop on interfaith marriage during ecumenical gathering Oct. 29 in Green Bay

APPLETON — Interfaith marriages were once considered taboo by many Catholics. However, times have changed and they are now accepted and celebrated, says Maria Nelson, who with her husband, Thomas, will be speaking at an ecumenical workshop on Oct. 29 at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Green Bay.

Maria and Thomas Nelson enjoy a recent early Sunday morning learning activity with their children Mary, 4, and George, 2, at their Appleton home. Maria is a member of St. Therese the Apostle Parish in Appleton and Thomas attends Christ the King ELC Lutheran Church in Combined Locks. (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)

The Nelsons will be sharing their thoughts and advice on how they make their marriage and family work while practicing in two faith denominations. “Being an interfaith couple isn’t really that big of a deal,” says Thomas. “There aren’t crucial differences between the faiths. The most difficult part is coordinating weekend schedules so we can get to both service and Mass.”

Maria was born and raised Catholic and “never in a million years thought I would marry someone of a different faith,” she said. “What I didn’t realize is that what is ultimately important to me is having a husband who has a strong faith of his own, regardless of the denomination.”

And at the end of the day, she said, “the differences between Lutherans and Catholics are so slight. What’s important are the 95 percent of beliefs we share and our desire to be a family who has faith as an integral part of our lives.”

Thomas Nelson’s father is a Lutheran pastor. His second call brought him to the Appleton area in 1980. He chartered Christ the King ELCA in Combined Locks in 1981, and a few years later, the church was built near Kimberly High School.

While the couple discussed religion during their courtship, it didn’t pose a problem because both were open and supportive of the other’s faith. “While dating,” says Thomas, “we went to each other’s churches. At the time, Maria had not committed to a church. We spent weekends visiting and worshipping at different churches to help her decide on a home parish. We must have gone to half the Catholic churches in the county.”

Maria chose St. Therese Parish, Appleton.

“Thomas’s father is a retired ELCA pastor and I am thankful every day that both of our families have been open to each of us maintaining our individual faiths,” Maria says. “Their honestly has never been a problem with sharing churches and faiths. I know I am extremely blessed in that regard.”

The Nelsons were married and their children were baptized in the Catholic Church. However, said Maria, “We do our best to split church time evenly. … At our son George’s baptism, we had three clergy: our parish priest (Fr. Bill Hoffman), our Lutheran pastor (Rev. Tim Krick) and my father-in-law (Rev. Steve Nelson). The three men took turns saying each part of the ceremony, and it was the most beautiful experience. Fr. Bill, and now Fr. Ryan (Starks), at St. Therese have been accepting of Thomas, and Pastors Nate and Tim at Christ the King are extremely welcoming to me.”

“At this point in our lives, the biggest challenge is making it to both Mass and service on the same weekend,” Thomas says. “We try to attend Catholic Mass on Saturday night and then Lutheran service Sunday morning. Aside from the obvious obstacle, the young age of our children (ages 1 and 3), we each have busy work lives and it’s not always easy to fit both Mass and service in the same weekend. For the most part, we are able to make it work.”

Both of the Nelsons work full time in addition to volunteer and service commitments. Maria is the agency director for Red Shoes PR in Appleton and serves on the boards of Catholic Charities and Homeless Connections. Thomas has been the Outagamie County executive since 2011. Before that he was in the Wisconsin State Assembly from 2004 to 2011.

Maria is a 2002 graduate of Xavier High School and a 2005 graduate of Marquette University. Thomas grew up in Little Chute, graduating from Little Chute High School in 1994, Carleton College in 1998 and Princeton University in 2004.

Maria tells other interfaith couples, “Be open about your faith’s differences and don’t be protective of your own. Early on in our relationship, I think I was hesitant to admit that I liked our Lutheran church because it meant that somehow our Catholic church is lacking. As the years have passed, however, I’ve learned that seeing the individual beauty in each church doesn’t question or diminish our faith. I’ve also learned to reference the churches as ‘our’ church rather than ‘mine’ or ‘his.’ Especially now that we have children, I want to feel like our entire family belongs to two churches, rather than having ‘Dad’s church’ or ‘Mom’s church.’”

“We don’t draw distinctions between the two religions,” added her husband. “Instead, we emphasize the similarities — of which there are many — and celebrate the unique experience each one holds.”

This fits with the theme of the Oct. 29 ecumenical service: “That We May Be One.” The event commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which marked the beginning of the schism from the Roman Catholic Church. It was initiated when Martin Luther created 95 theses that criticized the church and the papacy in 1517.

By the 20th century, leaders from both denominations were working to overcome these differences and work together. To that end, statements that brought the two closer together were signed in 1980 and 1983. In 1999, a historic joint declaration on the doctrine of justification recognized that remaining differences should “no longer have a church-dividing effect.”

The prayer service, which will include Bishop David Ricken and leaders from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, will be from 3-4 p.m., followed by a workshop called “Ecumenical Marriages: A Mirror of Lutheran-Catholic Sharing.”

In addition to the Nelsons, the workshop will feature Mary Ann and Jeff Otto. It will focus on how these couples live out the Christian unity everyone is striving toward.