When Gail Ferree first laid eyes on the man who would become her husband, she was smitten.

“I got butterflies in my stomach when he came home from the military and I saw him. We weren’t dating yet, but my sister’s husband said to me, ‘I can tell by the way you’re looking at Donald that you like him.’

Gail’s sister and Donald’s brother were married to each other, and both had encouraged their siblings to start dating.

“I fell in love with her because I liked the way her hair looked, and her beautiful eyes,” Mr. Ferree recalled.

Soon, their attraction took on a deeper meaning.

“I saw that she was a kind person, always going out of her way to help other people,” Mr. Ferree said. Their shared values drew them closer.

“I realized he was everything that I ever wanted,” Mrs. Ferree said. “I think our shared values helped us throughout our marriage and in our raising our family.”

Mr. and Mrs. Ferree, members of St. Joseph Parish in York, are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this year. They are among the more than 300 couples indicated to the Diocese who are celebrating their golden jubilee in 2020.

Annually, the Diocesan Office of Family and Respect Life Ministries hosts a Mass and reception to celebrate and recognize the couples. Typically held at Good Shepherd Church in Camp Hill with family in attendance, this year’s Mass was shared via livestream from St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg on Aug. 23 as Bishop Ronald Gainer asked God’s blessing upon the couples.

The Mass included a worship aid filled with wedding photos and current pictures of many of the couples, as well as pop culture highlights from 1970. During the Mass, the couples were led in the renewal of their commitment made 50 years ago.

“I’m confident that 50 years of marriage have taught you to be flexible and to expect the unexpected,” the bishop said to the husbands and wives, acknowledging not only the adaptation to the Mass, but also the alterations and even cancellations of the couples’ own anniversary celebrations.

“We honor you not just for the number of years that have passed since your wedding day; rather, we celebrate and honor you for promises kept over the years, no matter what those years asked of you,” Bishop Gainer said.

“We celebrate vows faithfully lived – for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer – vows that were kept in sickness and in health. We thank Our Lord, who joined himself to you, who became the sacramental bond of your married love, and who gave you the needed grace to live faithful through time and through the surprises that life handed you in your vocation of married love,” he said. “Congratulations, and may God bless you abundantly with many more happy, healthy, and grace-filled years of marriage.”

Watching the livestream of the Mass from their living room chairs, the Ferrees said it was a fulfilling and beautiful experience.

“It was a blessing. I’m thankful that we’ve had the Church throughout our marriage, and in raising our two daughters. Our faith is most important,” Mrs. Ferree said.

The Ferrees say communication and respect have also been hallmarks of their marriage, because disagreements are bound to happen.

“I tell my daughters and their husbands – who are raising our three grandchildren – the relationship has to be give and take, 50/50. You have to share things and talk things out,” Mr. Ferree said. “Sometimes when we have a discussion and we’re not agreeing, I’ll say to her, ‘Happy Valentine’s Day.’ We say that as a reminder that we love each other, always.”

“Never lose respect for one another,” Mrs. Ferree offered. The key is keeping God in our lives. Sometimes one of us feels one way about something and the other feels another way, but we always agree to be kind and patient with each other.”

For Anthony and JoAnn Niekrewicz, their Catholic faith has been instrumental in their marriage from the start, even back to when ten-year-old JoAnn was grieving the loss of her father.

A native of Brooklyn, she was angry with God over the death of her father, and decided to sit on the steps of the church rather than go to Sunday school.

That’s when Father Calder approached, a priest who would become instrumental throughout the Niekrewicz’s lives. That first day, he let young JoAnn express her anger. The following Sunday, he took her by the hand and gently led her to class.

“His guidance and helping me to understand what life was all about and what my goal should be in life, helped me be closer to Jesus and to know that kind of relationship would be important for me to see in whoever would be the man in my life,” Mrs. Niekrewicz said.

Father Calder married the Niekrewicz’s in the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Brooklyn. They fondly remember their wedding day, even though it was bittersweet from the loss of JoAnn’s father and Anthony’s brother.

“I used to ask my brother, Tommy, advice when I was dating. He said, ‘I like this girl JoAnn a lot.’ I said, ‘I do too.’ So another reason I love JoAnn so much is because my brother did, and so did my mom and dad, tremendously. God blessed me with the right girl,” Mr.  Niekrewicz said.

“I feel that God has richly blessed us in many ways, materially, spiritually and with family,” he said, referring to their three daughters and seven grandchildren. “As time goes on, I feel that I love JoAnn more so than when we were younger. That too is a blessing.”

The Niekrewicz’s are members of Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in York, and recently sponsored a married couple who joined the Catholic Church.

“It’s a blessing to be able to say that we’ve been married 50 years in the light of God, and to thank him for what he’s done for us,” Mrs. Niekrewicz said.

“Life changes, and 50 years is a long time. In every challenge, I felt Jesus with us. We talk to him in the morning and at night, and he’s the one who helped get us here,” she said. “Life isn’t easy. Marriage isn’t easy. I look to our faith to guide us through.”

A self-acknowledged “professional volunteer” for the Diocese and her parish, Terri Rosenstein has always appreciated the Diocese’s annual celebration of golden jubilee couples.

For nearly a dozen years, she’s assisted with preparing the reception after the Mass, reveling in meeting the guests of honor and hearing stories of their 50 years together.

With her and her husband Michael’s 50th anniversary this year, she was prepared to set up the reception, attend Mass with her husband, enjoy some cake and camaraderie, and then clean up at the end of the event.

Instead, she watched the livestream of the Mass with Michael – a bit disappointed that it couldn’t take place in person, but immensely appreciative of the liturgical celebration just the same.

“I’ve always been a big supporter of this Mass because I think we should recognize people who have made it 50 years, especially today,” said Mrs. Rosenstein.

Having mentored interfaith couples in marriage preparation classes at their home parish of St. Joseph’s in Mechanicsburg, the Rosensteins are candid about what it takes to make a marriage work.

“We encouraged them to have discussions about family, faith and children right from the beginning,” said Mrs. Rosenstein.

It comes from first-hand experience. Mrs. Rosenstein was raised in the Catholic Church; Mr. Rosenstein in the Jewish tradition.

“Older generations, at the time we got married, looked down upon the idea of marrying someone from another faith, but times have certainly changed,” Mr. Rosenstein said. “We were very fortunate in terms of our own immediate family supporting us. I loved Terri’s parents, and a good part of it was how accepting they were of me, recognizing that I was of a different faith. We didn’t directly have resistance, but you could certainly see it around you then.”

“I have to say that I’ve been very blessed. Michael has always been very supportive of the Catholic Church and raising our kids in the faith. He has gone to numerous workshops and Masses, and given his time to the Church,” Mrs. Rosenstein said. “St. Joe’s is like our second home. We have many dear friends there and raised our four kids there.”

“Sure, it hasn’t been 50 years of bliss; you have roadblocks, but you work through them,” she added.

The Rosensteins married the summer after college graduation – she from Arizona State University and he from the University of Arizona. A year later, and with a four-month-old son, they drove cross country to Pennsylvania for a job opportunity.

“It was an exciting time, sort of a new adventure,” Mr. Rosenstein said. “We struggled at first, but no more than others our age. We were raising a toddler without any real parental involvement, and that was difficult because we did miss having our parents and family around us. But, we treated it as something exciting.”

It was a typical start for couples of their generation, Mrs. Rosenstein said. “You got married young, started a family, scrimped your pennies. You were excited when you bought your first house because you had saved for it, and you filled it with hand-me-down furniture. But then you kept progressing,” she said.

“The thing we’ve talked about with our friends as we’ve reached this milestone is that, you became grateful,” she added. “We have everything we need. We don’t need another thing, in the house. We have children and grandbabies. You come to learn how blessed you’ve been.”

Mr. Rosenstein agreed, and offered these words to couples hoping to reach their 50th anniversary some day: “The most important thing is communication. If you talk through all the subjects – spirituality, finances, anything – the most important thing is to be honest with each other. You need to be honest and faithful, and if you do that, you have a chance of going beyond the first five, seven or ten years to have a long lasting relationship.”

(Window photo by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness