by Marc and Julie Anderson
SHAWNEE — It’s not very likely that Mike and Nancy O’Connor will get to celebrate their 50th anniversary with the archbishop at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Kansas City, Kansas, when their golden rolls around.
But that doesn’t mean that Mike, 82, and Nancy, 80, don’t know a thing or two about marriage. Both only married each other after experiencing the loss of their first spouse.
Nancy Muessig’s husband Tom died of cancer in 1974, leaving her a widow with three daughters. Mike’s wife Sarah died in a car accident only a year later, leaving him to raise their eight children alone.
By the time their story begins, in 1984 to be exact, Nancy’s life had settled into a routine — she was raising her three girls and was active in New Beginnings, a ministry designed to provide support to those who have lost a spouse to death or divorce.
Nancy had heard of Mike O’Connor for years but had steadfastly refused to go out with him.
“I’ll be honest with you,” said Nancy. “I had a nun who was trying to set me up with him about six years before it happened, but it scared me because she told me he had eight kids.”
“It scared me,” repeated Nancy. “I’m sorry, but it did.
“And then I met him on my own.”
In 1984, Mike attended a New Beginnings weekend, for which Nancy served as a facilitator.
“That [weekend] was the first time we really met and got to know each other because that’s a very intense weekend,” said Nancy. “It helps you get through the five stages of your grief from a divorce or the loss of a spouse.”
“Mike hadn’t dealt with any of his grief with losing Sarah,” she continued. “He hadn’t had time. He had eight kids to raise.
“So, he really had a rough weekend, but a good one.”
“And then, I thought he’d call me the next day,” added Nancy. “But he waited a month.”
Amy (Muessig) Fangman, one of the couple’s 11 children, still recalls the song her mother was singing after that call from Mike finally came: “I’m So Excited” by the Pointer Sisters.
One year later
Several kids agreed that it was almost as if Carol Brady of “The Brady Bunch” married Tom Bradford of “Eight Is Enough” when the couple married a year later, on Aug. 16, 1985, at Queen of the Holy Rosary Church in Overland Park.
The ceremony involved 10 of the 11 children. (One was away at boot camp.) They served as groomsmen, bridesmaids, ushers, gift bearers and lectors. One particular memory is as clear today as if it happened yesterday.
At the reception, Tim O’Connor said the DJ played “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge.
“All of us were out there dancing in a group,” he said.
“That was so cool,” recalled Nancy.
Getting to that moment, however, had its challenges. Take, for example, the family garage sale.
“I’ll never forget it,” said Nancy. Rita — Mike’s youngest — came home from school to my house that night. . . . . [And] she saw all that Mike had given for the garage sale, and that was the first I knew this was really hard on her.
“She wanted me to keep almost every pan and cookie tin.”
The whole family agreed the marriage put Rita (O’Connor) MacGee in a tough spot.
MacGee, the baby of Mike’s eight, was suddenly sandwiched between Nancy’s two youngest girls, Amy and Sarah. To make matters worse, she was the only one who had to change schools.
Then, there was the whole “grandma” thing.
Although Mike and Nancy have 28 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren now, back then, Nancy wasn’t quite ready for grandchildren.
“The biggest shock to me was when the grandkids would call me grandma,” she said.
“I was 45!” she continued. “I had six grandkids immediately when we got married, and they all called me grandma!
“It took me awhile to get used to that. I told them a few times they didn’t have to call me grandma, and they did anyway.
“Then, I thought, ‘This is kind of nice.’”
Parenting as one
One area of potential conflict, both Mike and Nancy knew in advance, could be in the way they disciplined the four children who lived with them after they got married. The four included Mike’s two youngest children, Tom and Rita, and Nancy’s two youngest, Amy and Sarah.
Clear expectations helped set the stage.
“We weren’t going to be divided because of the children. We made that rule right at the beginning,” Mike said.
“And then, when we had to correct one of the children, we’d do it together,” said Nancy. “I usually did the talking. He always backed me up, though, so that was good.”
Fangman recalled the first time she got “in trouble with Dad.”
“I ran out of oil in my car. I didn’t know I was supposed to put more oil in,” she said. “He had a very loud voice, so having him yell at me the first time was very scary. To have a man talk loud to me was very scary, so I ran away — but no one knew it and I came back.”
“That was my first time of being in trouble by him,” she laughed. But she was quick to note that she can now change the oil in any car.
Fangman also recalls how stories of the two deceased parents became a part of the collective memory of the family, and how those memories brought the kids together.
“From the very beginning, we always talked about Sarah, the O’Connor siblings’ mother, and they’d share pictures, and they’d find old things,” said Lisa Muessig, the couple’s middle child.
“We were just excited to see those pictures,” she added, “and we always talked about Tom, our dad, and we still do. That’s kind of a bond each of us kids had. We had each lost a parent.”
The pictures, MacGee said, which she helped Nancy compile into scrapbooks for each child, became cherished possessions of all 11 kids.
Mom and Dad
These days, all 11 kids refer to Mike and Nancy as Mom and Dad, but it wasn’t always that way.
“It just came naturally at some point,” Fangman said, adding she never thought she’d have a dad to walk her down the aisle at her wedding.
“It just felt nice to call someone ‘Mom,’” added Tim O’Connor.
So, what are some of the O’Connor clan’s secrets to a blended family?
It hasn’t always been easy, the O’Connors admit. But it might have started with the incorporation of something of both families in every room of their house.
To this day, for example, the last family portraits of the Muessig and O’Connor families before the deaths of Tom Muessig and Sarah O’Connor, sit on either side of the family’s Bible on a living room table.
Then, there was the blending of family traditions.
Prior to Nancy and Mike’s marriage, the O’Connor family celebrated the solemnity of the Epiphany, exchanging their presents then.
“So, when we got married, we let the kids vote on it,” Nancy said. “Christmas won overwhelmingly. We celebrate the Epiphany, but we open gifts on Christmas.”
And while some family holiday traditions were only adapted, said Mike, St. Patrick’s Day grew exponentially.
Prior to the marriage, the O’Connor family had long been involved with the Kansas City St. Patrick’s Day parade, having built their first float in 1977.
In 1999, it was some of the children and grandchildren who encouraged the family to build another float and enter the parade once again.
“Since 1999, we’ve won grand prize three times, said Sarah (Muessig) Book, “and we’ve got a lot of awards in there. I don’t think there’s a year we haven’t won an award — at least second place.”
The holiday is a family favorite, complete with a huge gathering (with lots of music and dancing) in the party room at a nearby hotel. Unlike Thanksgiving or Christmas, there are no competing demands in terms of family schedules.
“St. Patrick’s Day is the one holiday where we’re pretty much all together,” Muessig said.
Then, there’s the family reunion held every two years. Nearly 200 family members from across the United States spend a week at a lake, enjoying each other’s company, but also strengthening their bonds of faith, with the help of the “family priest.”
Although he is not related, Father Kent O’Connor, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee, has often attended the family reunion as an honorary family member of this large, very special family.
“It’s a testament of God being able to bring great goodness out of tragedy,” said Father O’Connor.
God does not will tragedy for us, he continued. But God can continue to work “even when we think things are at their worst.”
The O’Connors agree.
“I think our marriage is based on what you hear and see in the Morning Offering [prayer],” Mike said. “We will live and die for this Catholic faith.”
Perseverance, determination and joy
The couple has long been involved in parish life. They’ve led marriage preparation, mentoring and preparing engaged couples for marriage. Both have also participated in Christ Renews His Parish (CRHP) retreats, and Nancy participated in a Bible study for moms. For years, Mike has served as a lector.
Then there’s their daily rosary, a tradition they started when they married.
“One of my favorite stories is we’re all headed to the family reunion one year, and we’re all texting each other,” Book said. “Someone said, ‘What part of town are you in?’ Then, someone said, ‘We just finished our rosary. Someone else said, ‘We’re on the fourth decade of our rosary. And someone else said, ‘We’re just starting.’
“So, there’s this tradition of making a road trip and praying the rosary.”
Mike and Nancy’s example, Tim O’Connor said, would be “hard to beat.”
Their example, agreed Muessig, is one of perseverance, determination and joy.
The O’Connors have weathered numerous health challenges, including several chronic conditions, along with two life-threatening injuries. Yet, Muessig said her parents’ joy has never diminished.
“They’re good examples to all of us on how to keep their faith,” she said simply.