Ping pong, date nights and dedication: How one couple rediscovered their marriage

Fran and Rich Walden of Sterling Heights have been married for 55 years. For the past 20 years, they have organized southeast Michigan's World Marriage Day celebration, which they hope helps other couples to renew and strengthen their marriages. (Photos by Melissa Moon | Detroit Catholic)

The Waldens' marriage has lasted 55 years; now, they are dedicated to helping other couples find the same marital bliss

STERLING HEIGHTS⁠ — In 1993, Pope St. John Paul II gave his apostolic blessing on World Marriage Day, observed every year on the second Sunday in February. The day honors and celebrates the sacrament of marriage and invites couples to see their own marriage as a gift worth strengthening. 

For nearly 20 years, Rich and Fran Walden have spearheaded southeast Michigan’s celebration of the day, which this year includes an evening of dinner, speakers and dancing at the San Marino Club in Troy. Though Sunday's event is sold out, the Waldens say organizing the annual celebration has been a blessing on their own marriage.

This year’s speakers include Fr. Cornelius Okeke, author of several books on marriage, as well as Jeff and Lisa Vitale, whose own near brush with divorce and later discovery of the importance of a Christ-centered marriage has led them to help couples in crisis. 

The Waldens repeatedly emphasize the importance of praying together as a couple, something they said they did not do in their early years of marriage. 

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The Waldens have been married for 55 years. While the in-sync couple told Detroit Catholic they are currently living the best years of their lives, they will be the first to say the road wasn’t easy and their marriage has taken work. 

The couple married at ages 25 and 24, but after 10 years of marriage and three children, Rich developed a gambling problem that led to a 15-year struggle with addiction and a tumultuous time within their marriage and family life.

“That brought me down to my knees more,” Fran said. Despite the hardships, she realized she did not want to lose their marriage — something she saw happening more frequently as couples around her began to divorce. 

Through a series of interventions, including Fran’s increased reliance on prayer, a marriage encounter retreat and Rich’s introduction to a men’s group, the Waldens began to rebuild and renew their marriage. 

“We thought more about the sacrament of marriage that we took for granted,” Fran said. “We realized that the graces were there — God was giving us the graces, but we didn’t ask for them, so that opened our eyes.”

This year’s celebration of World Marriage Day is expected to be well-attended, with approximately 250 couples and 500 people total. 

“The overall purpose is to honor the sacrament of marriage, to celebrate it and uplift a marriage,” Fran said.

On the surface, the event might seem like a party⁠ — and it is no doubt a celebration ⁠— but it also serves as an opportunity for couples of all ages to strengthen their marital bond, from those whose bond is unbroken and those who have yet to find healing within their marriage. Prayer ministry is available in the lobby for couples who want to be prayed with or blessed.

The Waldens said they are currently living the best years of lives — in part because of their reliance on God to strengthen their marriage. 

The Waldens repeatedly emphasized the importance of praying together as a couple, something they said they did not do in their early years of marriage. 

Now, they attend Mass together almost daily and pray the rosary together every day. The Waldens read Scripture in the morning, go to adoration once a week and are frequently at confession. It’s something special that they do together, Fran said. 

“Years ago, I never would have imagined that (this) would happen if we didn’t take the time for our marriage,” Fran said.

At 80 and 78 years old, they still frequently plan date nights⁠ — dancing is a favorite choice — and they play ping pong together just about every night. 

“We know we have to devote time to our marriage,” Fran said. 

The Waldens said the busyness of life often stands in the way of a couple’s growth.

“We see so many couples who say, 'We are just too busy to go on a retreat or go on an encounter (weekend),'” Fran said. However, the Waldens emphasize how crucial it is to make time together “to enrich your marriage and to do something for each other so that you can save your marriage.”

The Waldens say the busyness of life often stands in a couple’s way of growth. However, they say it is crucial to spend quality time together — which they often do by playing ping pong, 

At 80 and 78 years old, they still frequently plan date nights⁠ — dancing is a favorite choice — in addition to their nightly games of ping pong. 

For this reason, the Waldens try to make the annual World Marriage Day event as affordable as possible.

Over the years, the Waldens have received feedback from couples who attend the event about how it has impacted their marriages and how, in some cases, it stopped couples in their tracks who were considering divorce. It's also comforting to know other couples have similar struggles.

“Any time we can speak for marriage, we are happy to do so, and we are here if couples want to talk,” Fran said. “We are always asking God to use us. We don’t want it to be about us⁠ — we just want people to know that you can overcome anything, even addictions.”

“Work on your marriage and you can have a good life,” Fran said, with Rich occasionally piping in from the background: “God really wants us to be blessed; He wants to give us grace.”

Marriage resources

While this year's World Marriage Day event is sold out, couples seeking to strengthen or renew their marriages can take advantage of several Catholic resources in southeast Michigan, including: