Journey from priesthood to fatherhood

Shannon Cunnien

Rarely does one have the chance to experience both married life and priesthood; any Catholic knows it’s usually one or the other. Leo Bulger, father to Benilde-St.Margaret’s senior Sarah Bulger, has led and left a life devoted to God.

First Influences
As a child Mr. Bulger led the life of an average Catholic ––his family went to Mass every Sunday and he served as an alter boy. “I went to Mass with my family, but I didn’t always go on my own when it was just up to me,” said Mr. Bulger.

Mr. Bulger’s first major religious influence was a priest at the Jesuit high school he attended. “Fr. Joe was fascinating,” said Mr. Bulger, “he changed my image of priests and priesthood.”

Fr. Joe showed his students how the Jesuit life was about service. “One thing he did was take us around to deliver leukemia cans to places. Stored would put them out to get donations. We must have handed out 500 of those; we went everywhere,” said Mr. Bulger.

“Fr. Joe cared a lot about people,” said Mr. Bulger, and in those days it was more common for the priest to be friends with his students. “Fr. Joe was a normal guy and he would just hang out with us,” said Mr. Bulger.

Mr. Bulger went on to attend Boston College for two years before deciding to enter the priesthood. “I was particularly drawn to the Jesuit lifestyle because it had everything to do about service,” said Mr. Bulger.

Becoming a Priest
His first step in becoming a Jesuit priest was to enter the novitiate. “I never knew you had to learn how to pray,” said Sarah Bulger, but that is one thing they learned in the novitiate.

“One kind of praying we learned about was a type of meditation. You take the first line of a scripture passage and imagine yourself in that place and time and as the person in the passage. Then you can really experience the passage,” said Mr. Bulger. Another thing he learned about in the novitiate was Jesuit history and their lifestyles.

One of the hardest periods in the novitiate was a 30 day silent retreat. “It was in the Berkshire Hills in western Massachusetts. It was hard to be silent, but such a beautiful place to be in,” said Mr. Bulger.
After two years in the novitiate, he returned to Boston College to earn bachelor’s degrees in English and philosophy. He went on to receive a master’s degree in English.

While working toward his master’s degree, Mr. Bulger helped Fr. Robert Drinan in his campaign for a seat in the House of Representatives. “He won the election in a big upset,” said Mr. Bulger.
Mr. Bulger soon left Boston to teach English at a high school in Portland, Maine for two years. “Education is a big focus of the Jesuits, so you’re expected to teach for a couple years,” said Mr. Bulger.

During the summer between his two years teaching Mr. Bulger went on a mission trip to India for six weeks. “I wanted to know what a mission trip was like, but I really went because one of my friends talked me into it,” said Mr. Bulger.

“It took me a day to know I didn’t want to be there,” said Mr. Bulger, “it was probably about 120 degrees when I walked off the plane.” During the his mission trip time in India, Mr. Bulger ended up in the hospital for a week due to unclean drinking water.

Once back in Maine, Mr. Bulger had a profound impact on the school. “I started a service program at the school that is still going today,” said Mr. Bulger. One requirement of the program is 30 hours of service work in order to graduate.

After about 10 years Mr. Bulger was finally ordained in Omaha, Nebraska. “My Masses were never over an hour and my homilies were to the point and great,” said Mr. Bulger.

He then began work at Creighton University. “I lived in the dorm and was a chaplain for one of the fraternities,” said Mr. Bulger. He also taught a theology course, said Mass almost every day, worked at a parish on campus, and did retreats with students. “On retreats everyone became each other’s best friends,” said Mr. Bulger, “Some retreat groups held reunions later.”

Mr. Bulger taught and made close friends with the students of Creighton for three years. “I loved being a priest,” said Mr. Bulger, “but I decided to leave because I wanted to get married.”

The Decision
It wasn’t a spur of the moment decision to leave the Jesuit priesthood. His final decision was made on an eight-day retreat; “I prayed a lot about it,” said Mr. Bulger, “it was hard, but I know I made the right decision.”

No longer having a job at Creighton, Mr. Bulger moved back to Boston, but life wasn’t easy. “The leaving thing was hard. I had no money,” said Mr. Bulger. He managed to get random jobs to pay the bills like working in a law firm.

Though he left Creighton his connections still remained strong, especially with one individual: Sue Gibboney. They became close friends during the three years Mr. Bulger was at Creighton. After Mr. Bulger left the priesthood and Creighton he kept in contact with Ms. Gibboney through phone and letters; after graduation she moved to South Dakota. “We would actually send audio tapes back and forth to each other,” said Mr. Bulger.

From Boston Mr. Bulger moved on to Hartford, Connecticut where he received his master’s degree in social work. “Being a social worker is a lot like being a priest, so it was an easy transition,” said Mr. Bulger.

Not long after getting his masters degree, he and Ms. Gibboney decided to get married. “We were very good friends for three years at Creighton and it just continued,” said Mr. Bulger, “We visited each other a lot while I was still in Boston.” They decided in September to get married and Mr. Bulger set out to find a job in Pine Ridge where Ms. Gibboney, now Mrs. Bulger, lived.

Today the Bulgers have three kids, Sarah, Matt, and Tim, and have raised them all in the Catholic faith.