A former priest and nun continue to serve people in need in the Northland

In a 100-year-old farmhouse on a dead-end road in rural Bovey, Jackie and Phil Solem enjoy a rich, contemplative life together on very little money. The two met in Duluth amid the turmoil of the 1960s, when he was a priest and she was a nun. Phil...

In a 100-year-old farmhouse on a dead-end road in rural Bovey, Jackie and Phil Solem enjoy a rich, contemplative life together on very little money.

The two met in Duluth amid the turmoil of the 1960s, when he was a priest and she was a nun. Phil tells the story of their life together in "Such a Road: Autobiography of a Marriage." He wrote the book with Jackie's encouragement and help.

The two are seekers, who have struggled in their marriage at times, raised children and sold the only house they ever owned and gave the money to the poor. Phil is 68 now and Jackie is 67, and both are retired.

"I wanted to tell the adventure story of our lives," Phil said.



For the approximately 20 years Phil and Jackie lived in Duluth, they were deeply involved in serving others.

When Phil moved to Duluth in 1965 after completing studies in Belgium for the priesthood, the energy of change was in the church and the world. "There was no end to the hope and the promise of that time," Jackie said.

Phil became a pacifist and preached against the Vietnam War. He had a flare of notoriety in 1968 when he published a pamphlet urging young men to refuse to be inducted into the armed forces and distributed it to 800 homes. He became one of the leaders of the antiwar movement in Duluth and worked as a draft counselor.

Separately, Phil and Jackie went to a weekend seminar on Christian living. Both lay people and religious leaders were encouraged to drop their masks and talk person to person. Phil and Jackie became part of a close-knit group that continued to meet. Before long, Jackie said, it became clear the two of them had a meeting of their minds and hearts.

It was a time when friends of theirs, both priests and nuns, were leaving religious life. So when they got married in 1970 -- a year and a half after they met -- it was shocking, but not unheard of.


For the first five years of their marriage, they lived in a Duluth commune they helped found called Chester Creek House. The idea was to live in a community of service. Some of their housemates started the Whole Foods Co-op in the basement. People in the house also helped create an underground newspaper and provided shelter for runaways, transients and draft resisters who were on their way to Canada.

Jackie worked at the Human Development Center and became a psychotherapist. Phil was hired at HDC as a group worker for people with chronic mental illness and later became a counselor and a team leader. Later, both became marriage counselors.


The couple bought a house on Arrowhead Road, had a child, took in foster children and lived a middle-class life. After six years away from the Catholic Church, a priest friend invited them to return, so they found their way back as parishioners.

In 1980, when Phil realized they had about $30,000 in equity in their home, he suggested to Jackie that they sell the house and give the money to people in need.

Both prayed about it and asked God for a sign as to what they should do. A few months later, they discovered a for-sale sign in their yard. A real estate agent had put it there by mistake. They laughed about the sign, prayed about the decision some more, and realized they felt called to sell their house. The money went to people they knew in Mexico and South America who were helping poor people.

Jackie said giving away the money was freeing, because when you have too many things it's like an albatross around your neck. "We didn't miss it," Jackie said. "We had everything we needed."


Selling their house in 1981 opened them up to other possibilities. They wanted to live in a community again and became part of a group that started Sacred Heart Community House in a vacant convent in Central Hillside. A stream of people lived there: some looking for help, some looking to help others. While living there, the Solems adopted a daughter from Korea.

In 1982 another group of people started a soup kitchen in the former Sacred Heart Catholic School and Jackie became very involved in that. Phil suggested to then-Bishop Paul Anderson that the old school could be used for a variety of services to help low-income people, which led to the start of the Damiano Center. The center no longer is affiliated with the Catholic Church, but remains an important provider of services to people in need.

When there was a change in bishops in Duluth, the Solems realized there no longer was support for what they were doing at the community house. In 1985, the Solems accepted an offer to move to a farm that some friends owned near Bovey. Then the bishop closed the community house in the old convent.


"We gave away our house, and [our friends] gave us this house," Phil said. "We're never in want. So many good things happen because of traveling light. It's not mystical. This is the way it works."


After the intensity of their lives in Duluth, they welcomed the slower pace of living in the country and living closer to nature. Both found work in the human services field. They raised their children, joined a Catholic church and became part of a rural community. They continue to live in voluntary simplicity.

Although the Solems don't have much money, they have traveled widely. They bicycled across Europe with their daughters, went on a pilgrimage by bicycle from Paris to Jerusalem, spent a year teaching in Japan and have traveled to South America and North Africa. They spend time in Mexico in the winter by offering to housesit.

Phil has gone through periods of believing and questioning his faith. Jackie said Phil always has been a questioner and is committed to telling the truth. "We complement each other," she said. "We question each other."

Jackie is a spiritual director and also paints icons. For her, the Catholic faith is alive. She said it's rich with history, symbolism and many layers of meaning that are open to new ways of interpretation that keep it from stagnating.

Phil said Jackie is a good partner, who is extremely brave, although she thinks of herself as fearful. She brought up the idea of teaching in Japan, quickly agreed to adopting a child when he brought it up and signed on to giving away their house.

"She is my heart's love," he said. "I just love her with all my heart."


LINDA HANSON covers family issues and religion. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5335 or by e-mail at .

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