He was on the path to priesthood. She was unsure about her future, but spent an evening at Pallottine Renewal Center pondering nunhood.
When their paths crossed at Pallottine, things did not immediately change, but Frank and Ann Merlenbach believe they were meant to meet as teenagers at the North County retreat center. The Merlenbachs met at a Wednesday night prayer group at Pallottine in the early 1970s and have been married for nearly 40 years now.
“I came with our parish priest to prayer group,” Ann said. “Frank came with his buddy Vincent, who thought it would be good for Frank.”
Frank and Ann forged a sibling-like bond.
“For a couple of years, Frank and I were really good friends,” Ann said. “I was the oldest in my family so he was like a big brother to me. That’s how I viewed him.”
Plus, Frank was seriously thinking about becoming a priest.
“I was a quiet North County girl and my collar was buttoned up to the top,” Ann said. “I turned 16 during the time we were going to prayer group and I remember them saying, ‘Sweet 16 and never been kissed.’ Frank came in and was more like the character in the movie “Billy Jack.” His hair was a little longer, he was a little wilder. He had a hat with beer can tabs all over it. He was wild and rebel-looking, which made him fascinating to me.”
The prayer group met for an hour each Wednesday night.
“We would do readings and sing,” Ann said. “It was a very small core group. One of the Pallottine Sisters asked if I had ever considered becoming a nun. I hadn’t but I talked a girlfriend into coming and spending the night one weekend to see if we wanted to be nuns. I have a lot of great memories of Pallottine and the Sisters.”
Frank, a year older than Ann, attended St. Louis Preparatory Seminary North before going to Glennon Seminary.
“After my graduation, we weren’t doing prayer group anymore and I hadn’t seen Frank for a while, but lucky for me, he just showed up at my door one day,” Ann said. “While he was in seminary, we’d still go out on dates. That summer after I graduated was when we really began dating. At the end of the summer, I was going away to college and I was still thinking he was going to be a priest. Before I left, he gave me a ring that spelled ‘L-o-v-e’ on it. I still wear it today. My Dad, who is an Aries just like Frank, told me there’s no way an Aries guy gives a girl a ring and still is going to be a priest.”
Soon after Ann departed for college in Kirksville, Mo., Frank began thinking of leaving the seminary.
“His spiritual leader told him that was fine if he wanted to do that, but told him to not do it for a girl,” Ann said. “Frank called me and told me he wasn’t allowed to call me, write or even see me so he could discern whether he wanted to stay or leave the seminary.”
Ann said the two-month break was difficult.
“When I went away to college, if I was having a bad day, I would call Frank crying and saying I wanted to come home because I was lonely,” Ann said. “That was back when girls didn’t call boys but I just viewed him as a brother. So when I was told I wouldn’t be able to call him, the guy I considered my big brother, and we had to cut off all communication, it was really difficult. I put my ‘Love’ ring on a chain around my neck.”
Ann also tried to date other people. Meanwhile, Frank was pondering the biggest decision of his life.
“When I was in eighth grade, the plan was for me to go to McBride High School,” Frank said. “But it closed my freshman year. My principal asked if I had ever considered the priesthood. She said if I went to Prep North, the tuition was free. I hadn’t considered being a priest but I said it was worth a shot.”
Frank became interested.
“I was serious about becoming a priest,” Frank said. “After two years in seminary, I had to decide the direction my life would take. I had a lot of long talks with my spiritual director. There were a lot of prayers and discussions. It was very hard. I always thought I would be a good priest.”
But not being with Ann was difficult.
“My spiritual director said that for me to understand God’s plan, I couldn’t talk to her,” Frank said. “That was crazy hard, but I understood why I had to do it.”
As did Ann.
“Luckily, a couple of months later, he called and said he was coming out of the seminary,” Ann said. “I was feeling guilty because I didn’t want God to hate me, but I also was thrilled because I knew I was falling in love.”
Ann became a special education and kindergarten teacher while Frank is an IT architect for IBM.
The couple officially began dating on June 5, 1976. Ann finished her student teaching on a Friday and they were united in marriage the next night, on Dec. 21, 1979.
The Merlenbachs had high hopes of starting a family. But Ann miscarried and eventually were on the Catholic Family Services waiting list to adopt. Then three miracles occurred.
“After 12 years of marriage, we had our son (Matthew) and that was a miracle,” Ann said. “Then four years later, we had another miracle with our second son (Joshua). When I was pregnant with Josh, they did all kinds of tests and they said he probably would die within three days of being born and we should consider options. I’m very Catholic and pro-life and we said that even if he is only with us for a few days, we are going to love him for those few days. Then he was born perfect. A couple of years later, I got pregnant again with our third child (Sarah). All three are God’s miracle and we are truly blessed.”
The couple returned to Pallottine for prayer breakfasts several years ago. Sarah, now 18, was a camper and later a counselor for Camp Mater Dei at Pallottine. And they often return their thoughts to their meeting at Pallottine.
“Any marriage has its ups and down,” Ann said. “During the down periods, we would say to each other that we obviously are supposed to be together because we had met at Pallottine. We’re meant to be together.”
“I think everything is God’s plan,” Frank said. “I don’t believe anything happens accidentally. I was supposed to meet her that first day at Pallottine.”
Pallottine’s mission to create meaningful, lifelong connections continues today.
This summer, Pallottine is offering a Staycation for the community (visit http://pallottinerenewal.org/staycation-summer-2017 for more information).
Participating businesses and organizations have come together to reveal sites that showcase the pride of North County. This weekend getaway offers guests the opportunity to proudly share in the heritage, culture and community of the region.
Pallottine also offers a Summer Speakers Series (http://pallottinerenewal.org/programs-2/programs/).
Make this summer a time to refresh your spirit, reflect with God and renew your faith at Pallottine Renewal Center. Offerings include: Embraced by God: A Day of Reflection for Caregivers and Those with Cancer and other Chronic Diseases (June 12), Finding Ourselves while Looking at Our Self (June 21), Who is God, Who am I? (June 26-27), Spirituality in the Second Half of Life (June 28), and AWE: Touching the Heart of Prayer (August 9).