Parishioners at Sacred Heart Church and Catholic School might have been surprised in recent days by word that their longtime priest, the Rev. Monsignor Howard Lincoln, was planning to marry his secretary following his retirement this summer. But the news was actually a long time coming, he said.
He and his secretary, Sandra Susini, started discussing a union almost three years ago, Lincoln said in an interview with The Desert Sun on Sunday. “I am 75 years old with heart issues,” Lincoln said. “Sandra is 72. We love each other and we want to take care of each other. And we don’t want to be alone.”
Lincoln said his intention to marry Susini was one of the reasons for his retirement — announced six months ago — and that he had discussed the possibility with his superiors as well.
“I told the Diocese (of San Bernardino) that I was considering marriage to Sandra in August of 2019,” Lincoln said.
Few others at the Palm Desert church knew of the situation, though, until Lincoln mentioned his plans at a retirement luncheon Wednesday. On Saturday, the Rev. Gregory Elder, the church’s new pastor, and the Rev. Tyler Tripp, parochial vicar, shared the news with parishioners via a letter posted on the church website.
“It is with mixed emotion that we share with you the following message. On Wednesday, June 30, at the end of our farewell luncheon for Monsignor Lincoln, he announced to those in attendance his intention to marry a woman with whom he is apparently involved,” said the letter. “This announcement surely comes as a shock to the community of Sacred Heart, which Monsignor Lincoln has led for the past 20 years.”
The letter added: “While he has not formally informed the parish or the Diocese of his intention to marry, many of you have already heard about his announcement at the farewell luncheon so we felt it best to address the issue. We know that this information will generate strong emotions for many and we are here for you in this moment of difficulty.”
The Diocese of San Bernardino, which covers both Riverside and San Bernardino counties, did not return a phone call and and email from The Desert Sun seeking comment. Messages left for Elder and Tripp at Sacred Heart on Sunday were not immediately returned.
‘An automatic suspension’
Lincoln presided over his final mass at Sacred Heart last week. He said he actually had intended to retire sooner — until the pandemic upended his plans.
“We were going to retire in June of last year,” Lincoln said. “But prior to that, COVID hit, and the bishop asked if I could say another year.”
In January, Lincoln announced his intention to step down from Sacred Heart, and Elder was named as his successor. Elder, a priest from Murrieta who was originally ordained as a clergyman in the Anglican church, is one of only a handful of priests in California who is married and has children and grandchildren.
The Catholic Church generally prohibits its clergy to marry, and Lincoln told The Desert Sun in January that said that only about one in a thousand Catholic priests in the state are married. Elder, Lincoln said at the time, would bring a unique perspective and be able to relate to parishioners in ways that few priests can.
“He’s a better preacher than I am,” Lincoln said at the time, “and he’s really a terrific replacement.”
In their letter to parishioners, Elder and Tripp said that “according to canon law, any priest who attempts marriage, even civilly, incurs an automatic suspension because such an action constitutes a break of the promise of celibacy made at the ordination.”
According to the two, this means Lincoln “cannot exercise any priestly ministry. The suspension is imposed by the law itself, not by the bishop. A priest under this penalty is not able to celebrate the sacraments or perform any priestly ministry until such time as the situation is resolved.”
They added: “We are here for you and we ask for your prayers for our parish, our staff, and all involved. Please know of our prayers for you in this time of transition in the parish.”
A Sacred Heart church bulletin from May explained how Elder was able to become a Catholic priest as a married man. It said Elder had studied theology in England and met his future wife there. In 1983, he was ordained as a priest in the Anglican church, which allows clergy to wed.
After serving more than two decades in the Anglican church, Elder converted to Catholicism, the bulletin said, and was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest by Bishop Gerald Barnes, under the “pastoral provision for married Anglican clergy” in 2006.
Elder’s authorization for ordination to the Roman Catholic priesthood as a married Anglican priest was decreed by Pope John Paul II personally, the bulletin added, at the request of Bishop Gerald Barnes of San Bernardino and then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger.
Until recently, Elder’s wife served as pastoral coordinator at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Riverside.
‘Am I letting people down?’
Lincoln said he had worried before making the announcement about whether parishioners and others might see his marriage as a betrayal of church vows from the man who had been the church’s spiritual leader for two decades.
“I did worry about that,” he said. “Am I letting people down?”
The response since the announcement at Wednesday’s luncheon has been positive, Lincoln said. “Sandra and I have been thrilled at the response of the people,” Lincoln said. “We have received about 25 texts in the past 24 hours, and all but one have been honestly enthusiastic.”
He said he saw the same excitement at the retirement luncheon, where he said about 27 people were in attendance and “all but one seemed happy” for him and Susini.
However, Lincoln, said that he did take some issue with how the letter from Elder and Tripp characterized his relationship with Susini, specifically the phrasing, “a woman with whom he is apparently involved.”
“I think that’s an unfortunate sentence. I think it raises the issue of celibacy,” Lincoln said. “I have been celibate since August 1987. I can say between Sandra and myself there has been zero physical intimacy.”
Although Lincoln and Susini have been talking about marriage for several years, Lincoln said he wasn’t sure how many people in the Sacred Heart family knew or suspected their closeness.
“I don’t think they suspected anything physical,” Lincoln said. “I have heard from people who said they hoped this would happen, that they were not surprised. Some people who saw us probably thought we were two people who were very close friends, and they would not be surprised that this happened.”
Lincoln also took issue with the letter’s implication that the Diocese of San Bernardino has not known about the prospect of marriage for him and Susini. In addition to talking to the diocese in 2019, Lincoln said there had been more recent contact with the diocese, including a conversation with a church attorney and the vicar general of the diocese about five weeks ago.
“They asked if I was going to marry Sandra, and I said I was not precluding marriage,” Lincoln said. “And they appeared satisfied with that response.”
Plans for retirement: Working with homeless
Lincoln took an unconventional path to the cloth.
Lincoln grew up in the small fishing village of Gig Harbor, Wash., near Tacoma, and after marrying his childhood sweetheart, he attended law school in San Diego. The couple divorced in 1971.
Lincoln began working at a Pasadena bar called Monahan’s Irish Pub five years later. It was there, he said, that he said he began to understand people from different walks of life. He’d hear their stories, their troubles, and how they went about overcoming them. He began to learned how to connect with people.
Lincoln said that in his early 30s he received a sign that he should return to church. At 35, he entered Fuller Seminary, a Protestant seminary, in Pasadena. He received a Master of Divinity from Fuller and later studied at an Episcopal seminary in Pittsburgh.
Lincoln, though, said he felt what he describes as a divine pull to become a Roman Catholic priest. In recounting his path to the priesthood previously to The Desert Sun, Lincoln said he wanted to be married again and knew that wouldn’t be possible if he became a Catholic priest — but still, he followed the spiritual prompting and switched from Episcopalian to Catholicism.
Lincoln recalled that his status as a divorced man made it difficult for him to find work. After numerous rejections, he attended St. John’s seminary in Camarillo and through that experience was ordained a priest on June 28, 1991, at the Diocese of San Bernardino. He later served as pastor of Saint Catherine of Siena Church in Rialto before moving to Sacred Heart in 2001.
Under Lincoln’s direction over the past two decades, Sacred Heart Catholic School nearly doubled in size and the church has raised tens of millions of dollars for both its facilities and Coachella Valley charity programs. Lincoln said he was proud of his work with the congregation.
Without a church to oversee and with no powers as a priest, Lincoln said he and Susini will both start work later this month at Maratha’s Village and Kitchen in Indio, where they will work with the homeless.
Previous reporting by The Desert Sun’s Andrew John was used in compiling this report.