It was a balmy summer night after an evening of bowling when Frank Baiocchi first mustered the nerve to kiss Anne Ciamarichello. She kissed him back. The romance that blossomed and marriage that followed seemed natural – except Frank is a Catholic priest.
In fact, he’s one of four married priests now celebrating Mass at Jesus Our Shepherd church in the small town of Nenno, Wis., near West Bend.
Father Frank’s career did not begin that way. Newly ordained in 1960, Baiocchi began working at Saint Giles in the Chicago archdiocese. He loved the work.
“I was what you would call a street priest,” he says. “I knocked on the doors of every house within our parish boundaries, no matter what religion the people were. I asked them what their lives were like, what their hopes and frustrations were. ”
After a routine transfer to Saint Williams, he continued his activist style. He organized a group for young adults called the “Single Set.” That’s how he met Anne.
“He was soft-spoken and intelligent,” Anne recalls.
“And I was handsome,” Frank grins.
“And he was handsome,” she agrees, cracking a smile.
“As our relationship developed, I knew I’d have to make a decision,” Baiocchi says. After months of agonizing, he told his superior he was leaving. The older priest advised him to “shack up and when you’re finished with her, come back and we’ll have a place for you,” Baiocchi recalls. Appalled, he left the church. That year, in December 1971, the couple married.
They moved to Hartford, Wis., where Frank was offered a job teaching. Two kids followed, and after a long teaching career, Frank retired in 2000. Then came a surprise request to serve as a priest.
St. Peter & Paul church in Nenno had been closed by the archdiocese and merged with another church in nearby Allenton. But many parishioners refused to switch and felt they no longer had a church. The new owners of the old St. Peter & Paul building had opened a day care there. They agreed to let it to be used as a church again. Father Frank said he’d serve as celebrant at the renamed Jesus Our Shepherd church along with another married priest, David Gawlik.
Opened in May 2002, the church serves up to 100 people on any Sunday, and two more married priests have joined as sometime celebrants. The church has a board that makes all major decisions and is entirely separate from the archdiocese. In fact, it has been condemned by officials, with former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland warning that its Masses are not “valid.” Parishioners sometimes leave Sunday services to find their cars peppered with fliers castigating the church.
As it’s grown, the parish has attracted publicity. It’s not unusual to see a TV crew in the back pew during Mass. The church is a key part of the movement for married priests – something Frank, now a spry 74, believes is on the horizon.
“Here I am, almost 50 years after ordination, doing all the things I was ordained to do, and I know I’m doing a better job as a married man than I did as a celibate,” he says. “I don’t doubt it for a minute.”