MENLO PARK, Calif. — When Carmelo Segona, 66, lost his wife, the future looked “black,” and the last thing on his mind was getting remarried.

But, over time, Segona, a devout Catholic and the father of three, began to open up to the idea of dating, even as he struggled to find compatible women who shared his faith.

“One day I listened to Father [Benedict] Groeschel talk about Ave Maria Singles, so I went on the site and was impressed with the faith life of the members,” Segona told the Register.

“They were doing Eucharistic adoration and going to daily Mass.” 

Before long, he was drawn to the profile of a woman named Jackie, a 40ish single mother who lived across the country in the Washington area. 

Now, Jackie and Carmelo are married, and both credit their union to God’s providence — and Ave Maria Singles.

Ave Maria Singles, along with Catholic Match, is among the most frequently cited online dating websites for devout Catholics who want to meet someone who shares their commitments and values.

While most of Ave Maria’s members are between their late 20s and late 40s, and the majority are women, Anthony Buono, the website’s founder, confirmed that older believers also are logging on.

Older Catholics may be less comfortable with social media than younger people, who tend to turn to Facebook and other sites for social networking and Linked In for professional contacts, but they are learning to navigate courtship in the digital age.

 

Giving It a Chance

This is Buono’s 16th year running the website. With his bird’s-eye view of the dynamics of online dating, he has found that older Catholics bring some tough issues to the mix.

Women may “come with emotional baggage that is projected onto the new man,” Buono told the Register — a reference, in part, to women’s fears that Church teaching prohibiting premarital sex may not be respected in their relationships.

“Women write men off if they screw up. The men don’t have a chance if they aren’t St. Joseph,” in some women’s minds, he explained. 

Meanwhile, Buono has “scolded” many men during online exchanges, pushing them to rethink their search for a “perfect” woman.

“I have told them, ‘Look in the mirror and think about your own faults. You should be honored that any of these good Catholic women would be interested in you,’” said Buono.

He said this kind of guidance is needed because good character and realistic expectations are key to securing a happy marriage.

He also nudges members to get offline and into traditional dating as quickly as possible: “They need to be with the person, as well as meeting the person’s family and friends.”

Uma Geary, a Virginia Catholic who met her husband, Pat, in 2003 through Ave Maria Singles and married him within the same year, believes that perseverance and an open mind helped her find a wonderful husband.

Back in 2002, Uma heard about a woman who treated the online dating process as a “job” and set an annual goal of 100 dates. That woman found a spouse after date No. 88.

That story inspired Geary and a friend to set a less ambitious goal of 12 dates in six months. 

“I met Pat on date 6. I wasn’t floored [upon meeting him], but agreed to go out with him again and just thought of it as date 7,” she recalled, noting that both of them had mixed results with dating before, with some people lying about whether they were still married or had completed the annulment process.

Geary was 39 when she fell in love, shortly after Ave Maria was established.

 

Difficult Process

Since then, women dating at an older age — in their late 40s and beyond — say online dating remains the most predictable way to meet people, but it is not for the faint of heart.

“There is no other way to meet men,” Kelly Connelly, a San Francisco Catholic in her 50s, told the Register. “Unless you are in college, online dating is the only way to open your circle.”

Connelly goes on Match.com to check out new profiles. Her own page notes that she is a Catholic, but it does not highlight her “conservative” values.

“I say that my faith is important. But to say ‘conservative’ would knock me out [of the dating game]. I have had three different guys say, ‘That doesn’t appeal to me,” she said, adding, “That could be just San Francisco.”

Online dating has brought some wonderful men into Connelly’s life, but the relationships have not led to marriage.

And, over time, it can be exhausting to channel so much time and energy into reviewing profiles, joining online chat groups and meeting new people.

Not only does it come with all the stresses of traditional dating, but the online experience leads some to approach the process with a consumer mentality: They are either “marketing” themselves or “shopping” for a spouse.  

“It is very easy, no matter what your age, to approach online dating like a shopping excursion,” Emily Stimpson, the author of The Catholic Girl’s Guide for the Single Years, told the Register. “You want a woman who is 5-foot-6 who wants to travel the world and have children or a man who wants to go to daily Mass.” 

“You take your shopping list with you and may miss the person who God has in store for you” if he or she doesn’t match the “must-have list,” said Stimpson.

Older women must deal with an additional problem: a drop-off in the number of available men, as their male peers often turn to women who are still in their child-bearing years.

And several women told the Register that the relative anonymity of the digital format makes it easy for some men to conduct multiple relationships at once, without the women’s knowledge. Once burned, it can be hard for women to trust the online process.

“I don’t even try to remember the man’s name until the fourth date,” said one single woman who did not want to be identified.

Carmelo Segona agreed that online dating tested his values, and he sought to treat every budding relationship with respect and honesty.

And he, too, felt let down when a woman he conversed with didn’t seem “authentic or compatible. My thought was: ‘Here I go again. This is the 15th person, and I am getting tired of this.’”

Meanwhile, Jackie Segona remembers that she had trouble sorting out the etiquette of online courtship. Before she tried Ave Maria Singles, she had tried another Catholic sites and had a mixed experience.

“You are chiming in on a conversation thread, and there is no body language. It can be easily misunderstood,” she told the Register, as she also remembered some strange online exchanges.

“I bumped into people who thought the Luminous Mysteries were heretical,” she recalled, even though Pope St. John Paul II gave them to the Church in 2002.

 

Catholic Courtship

A self-described “introvert” who had traditional notions about courtship, Jackie posted her profile on Ave Maria Singles and then waited to see what would happen.

“I was raised in a traditional way. I wanted to be courted; I didn’t want to go on the hunt [for a man],” she explained. “I would make myself available and hope someone out there would make contact with me.”

Once she and Carmelo began a steady exchange, Jackie conducted an online search to confirm the information he had provided all checked out. Then she gave him her phone number.

“The transition from online to ‘real’ happened before I saw her,” Carmelo recalled. “When I first heard her voice on the telephone, I loved its gentleness.”

Their first weekend date in Washington, near her home, featured Eucharistic adoration and an evening at a comedy club.

“I had a ball on the very first date. I felt like I was a teenager,” he said.

From his home in California, Carmelo would call Jackie before she left for work so they could pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet together.

“That was an experience for me,” he said. “I wanted my prayer life and God to be first, especially with Jackie.”

Six years later, the two are happy in their married life, and Jackie has concluded that online dating can be a gift for faithful Catholics yearning to find a spouse: “It is an option, and when nothing else has worked, why wouldn’t you try it?”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.