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‘You just have to have Him to lean on’

June 10, 2020

Editor’s note: This is an installment of an ongoing series featuring how Catholics of the Diocese of Ogdensburg are living out their faith. To suggest an individual to be featured in this series, please call the North Country Catholic at 315-393-2920 or email dfargo@rcdony.org.

By Jonathan Monfiletto
Contributing Writer

BEEKMANTOWN – A marriage should be between three people – and one of them must be God.

That is how Tom and Claudia Sanders, of Beekmantown, described not only their own 50-plus years of marriage but also their advice to soon-to-be-wed couples, given teaching Pre-Cana courses for 40 years.

“We have a real need for people to look at marriage. There’s so much living together now,” Tom said. “People shouldn’t get married for the sake of being married. I think love of course makes a big thing, and I think they need to bring God into it. It’s a three-way (relationship).”

“A marriage is not going to survive without three people, one of them being God,” Claudia added. “Without Him in the midst, it’s just not going to work. You just have to have Him to lean on, and I guess I’ve been doing a lot of leaning.”

Sharing God with each other – and with the people around them – is something the Sanders have been doing throughout their lives as individuals and as a couple.

Tom said the couple is active in their parish, St. Joseph’s in West Chazy, both serving as Eucharistic ministers and lectors. Claudia said she has taught religious education for 59 years, starting at 13 years old as a confirmation project and continuing as the family moved around the country while Tom served in the Air Force.

They also worked at Marriage Encounter weekends for 15 years in the 1970s and ’80s while teaching Pre-Cana courses for 40 years and still informally helping couples prepare for marriage.

“We’ve found things to do,” Tom said. “Nothing made us do them, but there was a door opened and we stepped through it.”

“There was a calling,” Claudia said, noting she went through Formation for Ministry to become a lay minister. “I just felt a strong calling for it, and so I went for it and I was commissioned.”

Claudia serves as the secretary for the Altar and Rosary Society, while Tom helps out the men’s club when he can. Tom also helps count the offering on Mondays and attends a Bible study on Wednesdays, and the two are involved in different projects around their parish and taught together in the past.

Claudia has also volunteered at Seton Catholic Central School for 25 years, working in the main office and the business office, supporting international students and now cashiering in the cafeteria. She serves even while being in a wheelchair after a multiple sclerosis diagnosis.

“She hasn’t let it stop her. She’s handi-capable,” Tom said. “So I tell people she does it, and I get to push her around and get away with it.”

For 20 years, the couple hosted international students from Seton Catholic, so Tom likes to say they have more than 80 “adopted children” around the world they still hear from.

One is a Japanese boy who expressed that he didn’t believe in God when the family prayed before each meal. When a tsunami hit his home country in 2011, though, he asked the Sanders to pray for his family.

Another is a Vietnamese boy who took an elderly priest out to movies and other activities just to be with him and do things with him.

“It was beautiful to see that,” Tom said of the way the couple shared their faith with the students and vice versa.

The couple said it is their prayer with each other and their service alongside each other that keep them strong in their faith, especially during the ongoing isolation of the coronavirus pandemic. Claudia has been engaging in what she calls “my corona therapy,” in which she bakes at home and then delivers the goods to people.

“There’s a certain amount of peace, and not to say we understand everything that’s going on, but I think that God is watching over all of us,” Tom said of the importance of faith at this time. “I think everything happens for a reason.”

“If it wasn’t for our faith, I don’t know that we would be able to even get through this,” Claudia said. “We’ve had a lot of tragedy in our lives, and it’s always been our faith that’s brought us through.”

The couple still goes to church together on Saturday afternoons – at least virtually. Though their own parish isn’t streaming Mass, they view services from parishes in either Plattsburgh or Morrisonville through Facebook Live.

“We’re kind of particular to Morrisonville because Father Scott, I had him in 10th grade in religious ed,” Claudia said. “He sang at our daughter’s wedding when he was in the seminary. He kind of grew up around us, so we’re kind of partial to him.”

Claudia added that she feels God is trying to tell people something through the coronavirus pandemic: Get back to basics, and be kind to one another.

“I’ve seen so much just in our neighborhood,” she said. “I’ve seen so much difference in the way people are treating people. If all this is going to bring us back to loving each other instead of fighting each other, then it’s a good thing.”

The roots of their strong, shared faith stem from their upbringings in strong Catholic families in Worcester, Massachusetts. Tom and Claudia lived 10 blocks from each other, but because 10 blocks is a long distance in a major city, they didn’t meet until they were teenagers.

Still, their Catholic faith – and their Catholic education – is something they shared before they realized it.

“My mother always said, ‘On Sunday mornings when you get up, you go to Mass before you breathe,’” Claudia said. “And 7 o’clock at night, the local radio station had the rosary, and I don’t care if the world was coming to an end, you were going to say the rosary as a family at 7 o’clock. Life stopped.”

“Mom especially was extremely religious. I say that in a positive sense,” Tom said. “We had to do the rosary every night too. We had a choice – certain TV shows we wanted to watch as kids. We could either miss part of ‘Cisco’ or ‘Superman,’ but we were going to say the rosary. We had to make a choice. For a 6-year-old, that was kind of a tough choice.”

Claudia joked that Tom’s mother was happy when he met her, since she was the first – and last – Catholic girl he dated, so she could help keep him tied to his faith. But keeping each other grounded in their faith is exactly what the couple has done throughout their lives together, especially when Tom served in the Air Force for 20 years and the family faced separation during much of that time.

Tom said it was a career he wanted to pursue and Claudia supported, “but it wasn’t easy and definitely caused some conflict.” Yet, they worked on it together and prayed through the conflict because they knew God wanted them to stay together.

It was during a time when Tom was away from home that Claudia was diagnosed with MS, and she was home alone with two children and nobody to help her but the people from their parish on the base.

“People would come in and say, ‘What is this going to do to your marriage?’” Claudia said of the reaction to her newfound inability to walk. “Here I was consoling them because I knew God never sends us more than we can handle. I said, ‘It’s going to be OK, and Tom’s not going to think any different. It’s not going to make us separate. It’s going to be OK.’ I always placed my trust in God that He’s going to see us through whatever He sends us.”

Tom said the diagnosis caused “a slight change in lifestyle” but the woman he married remained the same. And with a strong sense of faith and an equally strong sense of humor, the couple continues walking with each other and with God.

“I guess you could say we rolled with the punches,” he said.

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