RIVERSIDE—Bill and Jeannemarie Baker get up at 5 am. For two hours, they sit together, sip their morning coffee, read Magnificat, pray privately and discuss articles in Catholic magazines like Commonweal and America.
It’s different from the regimen they followed most of their careers. Bill no longer has to be on the 7 am train into Manhattan, and Jeannemarie isn’t teaching at Columbia University School of Nursing or running St. Paul’s Center for the homeless mentally ill. Their time together has become fundamental to them as a couple…and as Catholics.
“Our Catholic faith has always been important to each of us personally throughout our life,” Jeannemarie says. “It is so rich, and there is so much to learn.”
“We talk about this together, back and forth, while we’re reading,” Bill said. “It gets us pointed in the right direction for the day.”
Jeannemarie is a trustee at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Riverside and one of the founders of the Parish Partners Ministry.
For more than 20 years, Bill was president of WNET-Thirteen in New York, America’s flagship public broadcaster, and he currently directs the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy & Education at Fordham University, and is a professor at IESE Business School in Barcelona and at Juilliard School in New York.
He was executive producer of the award-winning film SACRED and also produces a weekly podcast on religion, faith and ethics for the Religion News Service at www.religionnews.com/beliefs.
They’ve been parishioners at St. Catherine’s more than 40 years, ever since they moved to Greenwich while Bill was president of Westinghouse Television and his colleagues recommended Connecticut as a great place to live.
“We found there were a number of people in the media here, including some of the top radio executives in New York,” Bill recalls.
He grew up in the media at a time when, he says, “You never talked about religion and you never talked about your faith. It was viewed as a bad thing to do.” However, he often found himself working alongside devout Christians, including Donald McGannon, president of Westinghouse Broadcasting Company.
“He was a man of such faith and values. This was a guy who wasn’t afraid to share his Catholic faith,” Bill said. “I was shocked by that- shocked and delighted.”
Later in his career, when he was president of WNET, Bill helped launch Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, which ran for 20 years on PBS. He has always believed the media should not be afraid to deal with religion, and in his podcast for Religion News Service, he and a guest explore the top religion stories each week. “In my professional journalism work, my approach is to have complete respect for all faiths and also non-believers,” he says. “We each have our own path to God.”
In a recent podcast, he interviewed Peter Steinfels, former religion reporter of the New York Times, who described as “grossly misleading, irresponsible, inaccurate and unjust” the Pennsylvania grand jury report with its accusations that bishops refused to protect children from sexual abuse. Many journalists, Steinfels said, based their reporting on the 12-page introduction and did not delve deeper into the hundreds of pages that followed.
“Too many journalists are given an assignment like sex abuse and have no clue as to what the real issues are and get it all wrong,” Bill says, adding, “Having serious coverage by knowledgeable journalists is critical for our society. Serious religious reporting needs a trusted source.”
Religious journalism was also part of Jeannemarie’s life growing up in Ohio. Her father, Joseph Anthony Gelin, was head of the Catholic Press Association. “He was a wonderful, wonderful, good man.” Jeannemarie recalls, although Bill is quick to interject, “For me — the son-in-law — he was quite scary.”
“We had seven kids in our family and I always felt loved. I see a lot of people today who don’t have that security of knowing they are really loved by someone that matters,” she says.
Her mother, Mary Jane, was a homemaker and devout Catholic, who often told her, “You always have to trust and believe.” She had a devotion to the Blessed Mother and every night after dinner, the family prayed the rosary.
Jeannemarie has started saying a decade every morning and meditating on the mystery. “It means so much to me,” she says, “My anxiety has gone away since I started to pray with Mary. I think it’s a miracle. And it feels good.” One friend told her, “I think that your mother is bringing you to the rosary.”
Bill and his brother Larry grew up in Cleveland. Although his father William wasn’t Catholic, he supported his wife Rita, who was committed to raising their sons in the faith.
“My dad was a factory worker. We had a very modest life, but my faith and being a part of this global church meant a lot to me, and it gave me strength,” he recalls. He never attended Catholic school, although he confesses, “I really was only interested in Catholic girls, and having a common starting point that we could share was valuable.”
It is something he has shared with Jeannemarie throughout 51 years of marriage. At times they may approach things differently, but he emphasizes the importance for all Catholics to share their beliefs, liberal or conservative, with one another, regardless of their different viewpoints.
“My faith journey has changed a lot over the years,” Jeannemarie says. “But I always felt accepted at St. Catherine’s no matter where I was on my faith journey…. At St. Catherine’s, I was formed and informed in my faith, especially regarding social justice and how we should love one another.”
Jeannemarie attended Catholic elementary and high school, and received a degree in psychiatric mental health from Columbia University School of Nursing. She became a psychiatric nurse practitioner and was on the Columbia faculty for 12 years. Bill received his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in Communications Sciences and Organizational Behavior from Case Western Reserve University. They are the parents of two daughters, Christiane and Angela, and have three granddaughters.
Seven years ago, Jeannemarie developed a parish program modeled after the Faith Community Nursing Ministry, sanctioned by the American Nurses Association and presented it to then-pastor Monsignor Alan Detscher. Since its inception, there have been more than 4,000 contacts with parishioners.
Parish Partners: Ministry of Hope, which has 30 ministers, visits the homebound to bring the Eucharist and pray with the bereaved, lonely and needy. The goal of the program is to promote health and wellness of the body, mind and spirit through service, worship and education while following Jesus’ command to love one another.
“We are fellow parishioners seeking to meet the needs of others,” Jeannemarie says. “What gives us the most happiness is loving and caring for one another, and this is what we are striving to accomplish with Parish Partners.”
Both Bill and Jeannemarie believe the Church will weather this period of crisis and express confidence in Pope Francis and Bishop Frank J. Caggiano, whom they describe as a humble man of faith and a dynamic leader.
“Being a Catholic is so much in my system, so much a part of my life. It is what I know, what I believe, what I feel,” Jeannemarie says. “I am not dissuaded by what is going on in today’s world. We all have the human stain and God loves us that way.”
Bill is proud of the Catholic intellectual tradition, which produced some of the greatest minds in history.
“I benefit from being a part of the Church, which has a history that is deep and profound,” he says. “I was born a Catholic, my mother raised me a Catholic, and it is so deeply in my system that I couldn’t change if I wanted to.”
Jeannemarie points to the importance of love, which is fundamental to Christ’s message: “You are bound to seek God when you are loving someone else. I’ve also discovered how wonderful the Eucharist is. I like to go to Mass every day, and Bill goes too. We need to be in God’s presence and receive his love.”