STILLWATER, Minn. (CNS) — From the beginning of their marriage, Bishop Joseph A. Williams’ parents, Dr. Gary and Mary Williams, knew the kind of family life they wanted.
And they were resolute about it being rooted in their Catholic faith.
Gary, 72, was a farm boy from Chaska whose childhood home is now part of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Mary, 71, grew up in south Minneapolis. She was 4 when her mother began taking her to daily Mass, a habit she maintained until she herself had little children.
“We both grew up in happy family life, and we saw our parents model what we wanted to have in our marriage,” Mary told The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper. “My mother was big on traditions, and I carried on a lot of her traditions.
“We created a lot of our own traditions. … I think traditions are big on keeping families together.”
In the Williams family, those traditions were rooted in the church’s liturgical year — celebrating St. Nicholas Day Dec. 6 and telling special stories on Advent evenings, home-sewn matching Christmas outfits, sacrifices and Operation Rice Bowl every Lent, sweetened cereal for breakfast on patron saints’ feast days.
Gary took the older kids to daily Mass nearly every day, and he and Mary also kept a weekly date night. The whole family took an annual fall walk in William O’Brien State Park.
“They were so on the same page on how they wanted to raise their children and their family. … They were just so intentional,” said their oldest daughter, Maria O’Malley, 41, sitting with her parents and siblings Anne Droske, 40, and John, 48, in the Williams’ living room Jan. 3 in Stillwater.
She turned to her parents. “You just didn’t miss anything,” she told them, “like going to daily Mass. It was every day — we didn’t miss it. My dad never missed praying at night or my dad reading Bible stories to us — it was every night.”
Bishop Williams, 47, was ordained an auxiliary bishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis Jan. 25 in the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul.
Gary and Mary met in September 1969 at a dance at the University of Minnesota, where Gary was a student. Mary was there with friends. Gary caught her eye, and she moved through the crowd to stand next to him. The first question he asked her was, “Are you Catholic?”
“Yes,” she answered. He said he was, too.
“Do you come from a large family?” he asked.
Yes, she did, she said: She was the third of 11. He told her he was the second youngest of eight.
His third question: “Would you like to dance?”
“The interview was short,” he said with a laugh. They danced together the rest of that evening, and the next day he called to ask her on a date.
They were engaged the following year on Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption, and married at Visitation in Minneapolis the following May 1, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. (Because of these feasts, their daughters have a version of Mary in their names, and their sons all have Joseph in their names.)
Mary said that while they were dating, she and Gary “talked about everything they could think of” about their vision and values for their lives, and that laid a foundation for a strong family culture as they began to raise children.
The Williams’ first son, Matthew, was born before their first wedding anniversary, and three other boys — John, Joseph and Peter — soon followed. (Joseph was born the day after their third wedding anniversary.)
The family lived in a two-bedroom apartment in south Minneapolis as Gary attended medical school and completed his residency. In 1978, they moved to Stillwater, where Gary practiced as a family physician.
The couple had five more children — Mark, Maria, Anne, Paul and Katherine. Today, the nine siblings are ages 36 to 49, and six of them have children of their own, for a total of 30 grandchildren. Of them, 28 live within a few miles of the Williams’ home; the others are nearby in St. Paul. The oldest is 26; the youngest two were born last year.
The Williams’ son Peter is a priest, who like his brother the bishop was ordained for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Father Williams is pastor of St. Ambrose Parish in Woodbury, not too far from Stillwater.
Babies were always a pivotal part of the Williams family, even when they weren’t their own. Gary delivered about a thousand, he said, and his kids were accustomed to family plans changing at the last minute when the phone rang with news of a laboring mother.
Those calls taught the Williams children flexibility, but there was little uncertainty in their family life, Maria recalled. Their parents’ love and affection made them feel safe and secure, she said.
“We knew how much our parents loved each other,” she said.
With Mass a part of most weekdays, the boys were altar servers, something, John said, that helped them feel “plugged into” parish life as participants, not just observers.
Mary blessed their children with holy water each day — something she began when she was a young mother each time she laid one of her babies in a crib. The family also learned about saints, regularly prayed the rosary, gave God thanks before meals — even in public — and knelt together bedside for night prayers.
“It was a nice prayer that always began ‘Dear Jesus,’ so there was this affection,” Anne said.
Gary and Mary saved discussions about family issues or disagreements for their date nights, and most disagreements dissipated on their own.
“We gave (Bishop Williams) a home (where he felt) welcomed and loved, and gave him good siblings that surrounded him and passed on our faith in example and in word and Catholic schools and getting him prepared for sacraments,” Gary said. “We do joke a lot.”
In a news conference Dec. 10, the day of his episcopal announcement, Bishop Williams described his family as “a school of charity.”
That “school” included caring well for their brother Mark, 43, who has cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities.
“He’s brought a lot of joy to our family,” Mary said, noting that he’s also beloved around Stillwater.
When Anne heard her older brother describe their family as a “school of charity,” she said the phrase struck her because “we’re not a perfect family, so with that comes struggling, fighting for … reconciliation and restoring the love and grace when things are off.”
“It’s a school: That’s where you learn things. You learn how to forgive. How to share. How to encourage,” she continued. “We’re always talking with our kids about, ‘Your words can give life. What you say matters.’ … We learned that at home. We learned how to work through things and forgive, and to ask for forgiveness, too.”
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Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.