For almost half a century, Richard Wray has been transforming lives by preparing couples for marriage and making them better parents.
Wray began teaching at St. Francis Xavier High School in 1964. His expertise was in social studies and dramatic arts. The following year, however, he was asked to teach a Grade 12 religion class. With no clear guidelines to follow, he developed his own curriculum.
"These are students who are leaving the school system in the next year or two, and some of them are going to get married, some will go on to trades and others will go on to university. But what has been given to them as far as tools, skills and knowledge about going on to the vocation of marriage?" asked Wray.
Wray and his wife Clara understood that marriage is a beautiful vocation, the beginning of family life and a great adventure. They wanted to provide the students with useful information. Clara was a nurse and together they devised a four-week marriage preparation program that would be taught as one component of Richard's religion class.
"We had nothing to follow. We had taken marriage prep before we got married in 1963. We sat down and thought about some of the key things a student should know about entering into marriage, and that's how we designed the program," said Wray.
The students learned what the Church believes and teaches about marriage and family life. They also received some instruction on natural family planning that was both reliable and in harmony with God's design for sexual intimacy and Church teaching.
After 1968, the marriage preparation course shifted to Louis St. Laurent School. Around that time, word went out that Richard and Clara were teaching marriage prep to high school students. The archdiocese was also offering marriage prep at St. Alphonsus Church at the time. Wray agreed to speak to the couples about sexuality.
"On a Saturday afternoon at 2 o'clock, we arrived at St. Alphonsus Church. I'll never forget this. There must have been 200 people, 100 couples that were taking the class. I think the last thing they wanted to do was take this course, when it was a lovely day, and have to listen to a talk on sex," said Wray.
A team of couples were formed to give talks on various subjects relevant to marriage. Topics included conflict resolution, intimacy, parenting and money matters. The program changed locations again to St. Andrew's Church and was eventually moved to the Catholic Pastoral Centre.
"All this time we were working with these large numbers. These couples were coming from literally all over the archdiocese, and they weren't parish-based. My wife and I felt very strongly that marriage preparation should be happening at the parish level," said Wray.
They were full-time parishioners at Annunciation Parish and also attended Mass sometimes at Good Shepherd Parish. In 1994, about two weeks after Father Len Gartner became pastor at Good Shepherd, they approached him about starting a marriage preparation course there. Gartner strongly supported their idea.
Richard and Clara adopted a program called Evenings for the Engaged, which was already in use at St. Theresa's Parish.
"We had about 20 couples that first year. All of us felt that we would like to take the basic concepts, modify them and create our own presentations, witnessing and giving examples from our own married lives," said Wray.
Over the following four years, they kept revising the Evenings for the Engaged program until it eventually became their own distinctive program. Modifications have continued ever since. It's now about a two-month program, held each spring.
Wray estimates that between 12 and 20 couples have taken the program every year since its inception.
A similar program, Enriched Marriage, was being offered at the Pastoral Centre. Richard and Clara were also involved with that program for many years. It is primarily for people over 40, have been previously married or who have a blended family where step-parenting is involved.
Changes have occurred over the years. Couples entering marriage who already have children were almost unheard of years ago, but today are common.
"When we started this program, having a couple living together was rare. Now, to see a couple not living together is rare. That is one significant difference that has taken place," said Wray.
While every couple has its own unique struggles, Wray said common difficulties include money and conflict resolution, which is why those two topics get plenty of attention in marriage prep.
Clara died from liver cancer in 2005, and, after more than 40 years of teaching marriage preparation, Richard pondered quitting.
"This was something that we always did together. I went back to the team, and said 'I'm by myself now, and I'm not sure what I can contribute anymore on my own.' They said, 'No way. You and your wife started the program here. You have the experience, and we want your experience to stay with us.' The team insisted that I stick with it – so I'm still there," said Wray.
The Edmonton Archdiocese celebrated 65 years of marriage preparation April 19. A celebration, which included wine and dessert reception, was held at Good Shepherd Church.
The next day, couples involved in marriage ministry and marriage preparation attended a retreat, led by Adrian and Christine Smits, focusing on the beauty of marriage.