MARYSVILLE, Wash. — When Father Tom McMichael arrived at St. Mary Catholic Church in January, he had already introduced himself in a “Pastor’s Page” letter on the parish website. In his note, he wrote of looking forward “with joy and hope” to serving at the church.
And he added a surprising detail: “I am a Catholic priest and I am married.”
In his office at the Marysville parish, the 55-year-old McMichael talked about his journey, from serving 17 years as a Lutheran pastor to a time of deep spiritual discernment. That led him, along with his Lutheran wife, Karin McMichael, to convert to Roman Catholicism.
On Jan. 10, 2009, he was ordained as a Catholic priest at St. James Cathedral in Seattle.
“I attribute it to the Holy Spirit,” McMichael said. “I truly felt a call to the priesthood.”
Greg Magnoni is a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Seattle, which oversees all of Western Washington’s Catholic parishes. He said it’s not unprecedented for married men to serve as priests. In the past, Magnoni said, several widowers have been ordained.
The first married clergy to make the transition in the United States were Episcopalian priests who petitioned Pope John Paul II about 35 years ago. McMichael is now one of about 200 Latin rite married priests in the United States. Most are former Lutheran and Episcopal clergy.
He was appointed to serve at St. Mary’s after the Archdiocese of Seattle reassigned the Rev. Dwight Lewis, a popular priest administrator at the Marysville parish. McMichael said his tenure in Marysville will last at least until June 30, 2017.
Just before coming to Marysville, McMichael served five Catholic churches in Skagit County, primarily St. Charles in Burlington and Sacred Heart in La Conner.
It was 2005 when McMichael told his congregation at Hope Lutheran Church in Lynden that he was resigning as their pastor and converting to Catholicism. There was no guarantee he would ever lead a congregation again. “I was raised in a Lutheran family, and was confirmed in the Lutheran Church,” he said.
He and Karin, who is from Germany, were married in 1985 and have two grown sons and four grandchildren. McMichael was ordained as a Lutheran pastor in 1988 after earning an undergraduate degree at the University of Oregon and going to the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California.
What caused McMichael to leave the church where he was raised and to become Catholic?
He said he began to move toward the change after the 1987 merger of three Lutheran churches, which created the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. While he said Lutheran worship is closest of any Reformation church to Catholicism, after the 1987 merger he began seeing changes that made him less comfortable. “The Lutheran Church became more Protestant,” he said.
Rather than move to a breakaway Lutheran church, he gravitated to the more sacramental Catholic faith.
In his letter to St. Mary’s parishioners, McMichael wrote that before he was ordained as a Catholic priest, then-Seattle Archbishop Alexander Brunett petitioned Pope Benedict XVI for a dispensation from the norm of celibacy. McMichael also spent time at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon.
He commutes from La Conner, where he and his wife live. Karin McMichael is an estate-planning attorney who works in Bellingham. She attends Sunday Mass in Marysville.
“Everyone is very warm and ready to welcome us. This is a whole new world, with incredible diversity,” she said.
Before her husband’s ordination as a Catholic priest, Karin McMichael met with the Seattle archbishop and signed a consent form. “It was similar to what a deacon’s wife is asked to do,” she said.
Both of the McMichaels’ sons also became Catholics.
“It wasn’t anything I ever would have dreamed of growing up,” Karin McMichael said. “I ended up with a husband who is very busy.”
She is sometimes asked what her husband does. “When I tell them, they think I’m confused,” Karin McMichael said.