Couple still engaged 21 years into marriage

Jay and Julie Stuart, members of Epiphany Church, shared a laugh Sept. 7. They have been married for 21 years and have served engaged couples through the Catholic Engaged Encounter, Inc., from the beginning. The Stuarts recently received the Mike and Debbie Lafferty Service Award. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer

Jay and Julie Stuart said they knew from the beginning they wanted a lasting marriage and set out to have just that.

The Stuarts, members of Epiphany Church, have been married for 21 years and involved with the Catholic Engaged Encounter, Inc., from the beginning.

Engaged Encounter is an international ministry which provides engaged couples with a weekend retreat where they can talk in-depth about the issues they’ll encounter in marriage.

The couple was honored with the Mike and Debbie Lafferty Service Award in July for their two decades of work with the program.

The Stuarts attended an Engaged Encounter retreat in 1996 and were married the same year, they said during an interview Sept. 7. Six months into their marriage they returned to Engaged Encounter to help guide other couples preparing for the sacrament of matrimony.

During the retreat, which would set them on a path to a happy marriage, the Stuarts said they met Art and Tammy Turner, speakers at the retreat.

“They were wonderful and we connected with them,” said Julie Stuart. “We wanted what they had.”

Art Turner is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Faith Formation and Tammy Turner serves as program assistant in the Office of Worship. The Turners have been involved with Engaged Encounter since 1990. They are no longer presenters but provide support to the teams who do.

During that retreat, the Turners helped the Stuarts see the importance of praying together, said Julie Stuart. The Turners prayed they would be “faithful and have God in our relationship,” she said.

Jay Stuart said the retreat presented them with “something to aspire to.” Engaged Encounter ministry, he said,  “makes marriage more real.”

“There are no stereotypical couples you see on T.V. It’s a real representation of what it means to enter into sacramental marriage.”

Engaged Encounter’s message, he said, is that “marriage is good, but not always easy.”

Serving the Engaged Encounter ministry has helped the longevity of their marriage, the Stuarts said. Sharing their successes and failures — and learning from them — has made their marriage stronger, they said.

“You really have to walk the talk. You can’t say one thing to the (engaged) couples and not be willing to do the same,” said Jay Stuart.

Their ministry also has created a support system, said Julie Stuart.

Jay Stuart agreed, adding that their marriage has benefitted from the presence of “like-minded couples” who are also presenters at Engaged Encounter retreats.

“We hold one another accountable. It helps when you’re surrounded by folks like that. You strive to be better,” said Jay Stuart. 

The Stuart’s advice to engaged couples is to be “life-giving” to their spouses. Julie Stuart describes “life-giving” as being “supportive and caring and wanting the best” for one’s partner.

On the other hand, said Jay Stuart, you have to guard against actions that are “life-taking.” At the heart of a good marriage is respect, he said.

He also tells the engaged couples that “love is a decision much more than it is a feeling. They have to make the decision every day to love their spouse,” he said.

The Stuarts don’t have children. They have dedicated their lives to their parish, their extended family and their ministry. Julie Stuart has served for 10 years as a pastoral associate of community life at Epiphany Church. She started her service at the church as a parish nurse. She and her husband also mentor engaged couples at Epiphany.

Over the years, the Stuarts have chaired Engaged Encounter’s national board and helped create the Mike and Debbie Lafferty Service Award, which they received during the program’s national convention in July.

The experience was humbling, they said.

“It caught us off guard. We love the ministry and are not in it for recognition,” said Julie Stuart. “There are so many deserving people. We’re in great company.”

The awards ceremony took place in Omaha, Neb., and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, who is serving as the episcopal moderator for Engaged Encounter, was present said the Stuarts. This is the first time the award, given every two years, was presented to a couple and a priest. Father Frank Pugliese of San Diego, Calif., was the other recipient.

For more information on Catholic Engaged Encounter, Inc., visit http://engagedencounter.org.

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