A History of Separated and Divorced Catholics of the Archdiocese of Washington

While separation and divorce were not unknown among Catholics, the scope of the problem and the alienation did not become well known until the late forties. In the Washington Archdiocese, several ideas were explored, including separate discussion groups for men and women. In November of 1971, ten women gathered at the Annunciation Church in Washington, D.C. with Rev. Michael McManus who had been appointed by the Archdiocese to minister to the Separated and Divorced Catholics. They formed a group known as "Stella Maris," which met once a month, on Sunday afternoons. Attendance fluctuated from three to thirty-five.


In the summer of 1973, Father McManus became pastor of St. Nicholas in Laurel. During this period, Brother Leonard Walker join the group. He was a trained counselor and brought much expertise to the organization. When Father McManus resigned as spiritual advisor, and Brother Walker took on the position. Brother Leonard suggested a way to begin was to organize, acquire goals and purpose, and grow in the ministry to Separated and Divorced Catholics. To accomplish this task, a Board of Directors was appointed. The first official proclamation of the new Board was to change the name from "Stella Maris' to "Separated and Divorced Catholics" on March 3, 1974. "SDC" meetings were set at the first Sunday of the month, at St. Matthews Cathedral and consisted of guest speakers, a topic for discussion, and/or a rap session.


During August 1974, Brother Leonard was ordained and celebrated one of his first Home Masses for us in September 1974. This started a tradition of celebrating as a community with a Home Mass followed by a Pot Luck Supper. Father Walker and the President became active members of the Family Life Bureau of the Archdiocese of Washington. As part of this ministry, SDC participated in archdiocesan programs. SDC also conducted a panel discussion at at the Washington Theological Institute. With the ministry for separated and divorced persons reaching more parishes, a brochure was prepared with the purpose and goals of the organization outlined. The Family Life Bureau printed them and they were distributed to all who called or showed an interest.


In December, 1974, Fr. McCab and a committee from Baltimore met with a committee of SDC . The attendees decided that, while the direction of both groups was the same, they should remain independent.


By March 1975, SDC was still encountering reluctance by many pastors to announce our existence and to refer hurting parishioners to our organization. Father Walker asked Bishop Lyons to celebrate the 1st Annual Mass for SDC on June 22, 1975. Officers for the following year were blessed by the Bishop. Two hundred attended this Mass. A reception followed the Mass. Subsequently, Bishop Lyons sent letters informing all pastors that SDC was an official organization of the Archdiocese of Washington and was to be supported. The Annual Mass and Blessing of Officers remains a most important event in the SDC calendar.


Roughly paralleling the events in Washington were the small groups forming in Boston at the Paulist Center. In 1971 a few divorced women approached Fr. James Young and expressed a need to have someone in the Church understand their particular problems. That small group grew rapidly, and within a year the first national conference was held in Boston. In November 1975, the Paulist Center Community held their Fourth National Conference for Divorced and Separated Catholics and Father Walker and three members went to represent the Washington SDC organization. Father James Young gave the opening talk "What the Church is learning from Separated and Divorced Catholics." That Sunday, the North American Conference of Separated and Divorced Catholics (NACSDC - see the link to the NACSDC web site on our home page) was formed. The first National Conference of NACSDC was hosted by the Washington SDC group in January 1976 and the attendees drew up their purpose and by-laws. Since that time, the annual NACSDC Conferences have been the University of Notre Dame each summer.


In February 1976, Father Vince O'Brien made inquiry about SDC. SDC invited him to come to a meeting and learn about the needs of the separated and divorced. Well he did, became interested in our ministry, and joined our cause. Since that time, Father Vince has touched the lives of each member of SDC in a blessed and beneficial way. He has been the smiling, accepting face of our Church for all of us. He is presently our Chaplain. Father Vince started a new concept - Personal Growth Groups, moderated by SDC members trained in listening and managing discussions, but not as professional care-providers. These members, the SDC Facilitators, have been the core of the SDC peer ministry ever since. In this tradition, SDC currently offers its "Separation, Divorce, and Beyond."


Also in 1976, SDC became a non-profit organization, registered with the IRS. We applied for and were issued a bulk mail permit with the post office and printed our own monthly newsletter.


Thus, by 1978, SDC had developed into the present organization. Membership has fluctuated from the 10 members the group began with in 1971, reaching a peak of approximately 500 members from mid-80s to early 90s. Current membership of is about 150 members. In 2002, SDC incorporated in the State of Maryland as a not-for-profit corporation affiliated with the Archdiocese of Washington.  The first SDC annual Mass, Dinner, and Dance was held on Saturday, October 29, 2005 – a change from Spring Sunday Mass and Dinner and the last one was in 2007 with Cardinal Wuerl as celebrant. 


On May 2, 2012, Father Vince O’Brien began his new life with his Savior.  More than any other person mentioned above or below, he was the loving face and healing voice of SDC.  He taught us how to love and give all, let go and follow in his footsteps and his ministry.


In November of 2015, after  financial and legal problems arose, it was decided that SDC would become an integral ministry of the Archdiocese.


The key word in SDC is healing, and the aims are to assist each separated-divorced Catholic to become whole again in the love of the Lord and to help other Catholics understand the pain and suffering the separated and divorced have experienced, so that they will be able to help them remain active members of the Church. The faces have changed but the need and the ministry remain as vital as ever.

Celebrants for the Annual SDC Mass have been:


Bishop Thomas Lyons, 1975-76; Father Vincent O’Brien, 1977, Bishop Lyons, 1978-79; Bishop Thomas Kelly, 1980; Archbishop James Hickey, 1981; Father Raymond Kemp, 1982; Bishop Eugene Marino, S.J., 1983; Bishop Alvaro Corrada, S.J., 1984-85; Bishop Eugene Marino, S.J., 1986-87; Father Kevin T. Hart, 1988; Bishop Leonard J. Olivier, 1989-90; Father Godfrey Mosley, 1991; Father Ronald Jameson, 1992; Father Vince O’Brien and Father William Cleary, 1994; Father Jameson, 1995; Bishop Alvaro Corrada, S.J., 1996; Bishop William Lori, 1997; Father Cary Hill, 1998; Rev. Raymond East, 1999; Fathers Vince O’Brien and Michael Blackwell, 2000-03; Father Michael Blackwell, 2004;  Bishop Leonard J. Olivier, 2005-06; Archbishop Donald Wuerl, 2007.

Spiritual Advisors of Washington SDC have been:


Fr. Eamon McManus, 1971-76; Fr. Leonard Walker, SDS, 1974-76; Fr. Vincent O'Brien, S.J., 1976-2012; Fr. William Cleary, 1979-90, 1994-97; Fr. Charles McCann, 1977-78; Rev. Mr. Jack Hamilton, 1970-98; Fr. Joseph Koury, S.J., 1983; Fr. Francis Murphy, 1984-87; Fr. Eamon Dignan, 1987; Fr. Ray Schmidt, 1985-89; Fr. Walter Lawrence, 1988-90; Rev. Mr. Joe Interlandi, 1995-99, Father Michael Blackwell, archdiocesan chaplain, 1996-present; Deacon David Barnes, 1999-present; and Monsignor Maury O’Connell, 2014-present.

Presidents of SDC have been:


Delores Throwe, 1971-77; Arlene Drennan, 1977-79; Francis X. Ballman, 1979-81; Carrie Hansen, 1981-83; Lou Martin, 1983-84; Celeste Peters, 1984-85; Fred Kopenhafer, 1985-86; Nancy Lynch, 1986-1988; Pat Taylor 1988-89; Betty Dawson, 1989-90; Joan Esser, 1990-92; Robertta Keely, 1992-94; Maureen Sandall, 1994-95; Shelia Spillman, 1995-97; Greg Becker, 1997-98, Ty Thomas-Fischer, 1998-2000; Peggy Keegan, 2000-01: Diane Fleming, 2001; Carolee Gearhart, 2001-03, Eileen O'Brien, 2003-04, Cathie With, 2004-05, Greg Becker, 2005-2015.