Logging on to Love

Feb. 5-11, 2004
VOL 123 NO. 5
Logging on to Love
By Kristen Fox / SUN  Staff Writer
It wasn’t hard for Helen Pejak to get a date. Living on the outskirts of Toronto provided her with plenty of opportunities to meet prospective partners. But it was a challenge to meet a quality person who shared her Catholic faith and values.

“In Canada there aren’t many church dating groups,” said Pejak, 34. “As a Catholic, you know what is important to you and you want to find someone similar, but you don’t know where to find him or her.” In March 2002, while on her home computer and logged on to a Catholic website, Pejak saw an advertisement for Ave Maria Singles, an online service for adult, single Catholics looking to find spouses. Though she had never done anything like this before she had an inkling to give the service a try. “Usually I would be the first person to say, ‘This is crazy,’ but something told me that I would meet my husband there,” said Pejak. The profile of Dennis Lynn, a Catholic single from West Virginia, caught her eye. “I had a good feeling about him. I thought he was special,” Pejak said.

The two exchanged e-mails, but never saw photos of each other until Lynn flew to Canada a couple of months later. “I was paranoid about safety,” Pejak said of her decision not to post a photo. Pejak met Lynn at the airport. She said that she didn’t feel any butterflies in her stomach before meeting the man that she had made such a deep connection with. “I just remember being very excited,” Pejak said. “There was no concern that I wouldn’t like Dennis. I liked him already.” Their first face-to-face encounter went so well that Lynn ended up flying back to Canada three times in the next month to spend time with Pejak. Within six months of their online introduction, the pair was engaged. They were wed in November 2003. Today, the couple is enjoying married life in Virginia.

Though an extraordinary event, Helen and Dennis’ story is not unique. They are just two of a growing number of Catholic singles who have “clicked” online. Catholics of all ages and backgrounds are abandoning traditional means of finding that special someone and logging on in search of love. Anthony Buono founded Ave Maria Singles http://www.avemariasingles.com based in Front Royal, Va., in 1998. While traveling across the country as general manager for a Catholic book company, Buono heard time and time again of the frustration felt by many single Catholics looking for spouses. “The common denominator in the single Catholics I came across was their plight to find companions who, like themselves, were serious about their faith.” Around this time, widespread use of the Internet was gaining momentum, Buono said. He believed that he had found the answer to many single Catholics’ prayers. “It dawned on me that the Internet was the perfect medium where people could connect,” he said. “It is the right place for so many people with hectic lifestyles to find someone special.”

In just six years, Ave Maria Singles has grown to include approximately 7,700 members. It is one of the smaller sites in terms of membership, admitted Buono, but this is fine with him. It is the quality of the members –– not quantity –– that matters most to him. “I am not after big numbers or big money, but building a service filled with quality people with like minds,” said Buono. Ave Maria Singles advertises that its members should be committed, practicing Catholics who believe church teaching on marriage, contraception and abortion; they are invited to join only if they are free to marry in the church. “We get people to weed themselves out before they join the site, in the sign-up process, so our site doesn’t get filled with people ineligible for sacramental marriage,” Buono added. Ave Maria Singles is not a dating service, cautioned Buono. “Our service is a marriage service. We invite single Catholics who know that they are called to marriage but haven’t yet found that person to spend their lives with,” he said. http://CatholicSingles.com , which operates out of Orange County, Calif., is an online dating service for Catholics. Tom Johnson, vice-president of marketing, agrees that it can be difficult for some Catholics to find mates who share their same convictions. “These people are sick of the bar scene and randomly meeting someone. They said, ‘I want to meet and marry someone within my faith,’” explained Johnson, a former member of CatholicSingles.com who liked the service so much that he contacted its founder, David Nevarez, and landed a job with the company. “We have over 100,000 people signed up,” Johnson said. “It’s really growing because the whole Internet has exploded. If you’re Catholic and single, there are no age boundaries, no borders. People can meet people who they would never have met in any other circumstances.”

When looking for a soul mate, religion is one of the most important characteristics people consider, explained Johnson. “This is a perfect way to meet people, and people can do so from the privacy of their own home or office,” he said. According to Johnson, there are about 106 million single adults in the U.S. Men and women are marrying later. In 1970, men married on the average at age 23. In 2000, the average jumped to almost 27. In 1997, the average woman married at 21. Now, it’s 25. Johnson also pointed out some other significant changes in recent years. From what he has seen and heard from CatholicSingles.com members, it has become increasingly difficult for single Catholics to meet at church or at a church-related group or function. Unfortunately, the old adage, “You can find a good person at church,” –– though still true –– is no longer as easy as it sounds. “Unfortunately this is the case in many dioceses around the country,” Johnson said. “Things such as small budgets and program cutbacks no longer offer Catholic singles as many chances to get together as before.”

As online dating services become mainstream, the myth that online dating is for the desperate has been dispelled. “People were ashamed to say, ‘I met online,’” said Johnson. “That stigma has all but vanished. The vast majority of people I speak to think it’s a viable and wonderful way to meet people.” Both Ave Maria Singles and CatholicSingles.com report members from ages 18 to 90. Buono said the largest population segment at Ave Maria Singles is the 27 to 37 range. But he noted that the number of seniors who use the site is also on the rise. “The Internet is the new medium for singles of all ages to meet people. One day, it will probably become the first step for people to find another person,” Buono said.

Johnson reported that CatholicSingles.com has more than 5,000 seniors. They are in the process of launching a new site, Catholicseniors.com, which will serve as a venue for seniors interested in reading and talking about Catholic life. “People have a perception that seniors are not online, but they are a significant portion of our database,” Johnson said. “People 55 and older are definitely online and more savvy than people realize.” Members of Catholic singles sites are invited to join a whole new world where they can explore their faith and form relationships. On most sites users can contact other members by age and geographic region, post their photos, write biographical essays and list their hobbies and interests. “They can look through members’ profiles and e-mail back and forth. We don’t give out any personal information. They only know each other by a member profile name,” Johnson said.

Some sites also feature editorial content, including regular columns by clergy and laity. Community forums provide users with a chance to chat with other members about topics such as religion, life issues, literature and single life. A new link at Ave Maria Singles called “Ask Married Members” allows potential members to get in touch with couples who met on the site. Singles can ask the couples questions about their online experiences as well as find a support group of people who were once in their shoes. Johnson recommends that people wanting to get the most out of the site should be proactive by contacting other members and responding to people who write them. John Rotondi met his wife Kori on Ave Maria Singles. He said the more information that users post the better their chances are of finding the right match. “I definitely wanted someone who was faithful to church teachings,” said John, from Maryland. “Faithful Catholics are a growing minority of people. Sites like Ave Maria Singles really help you to find someone in tune with your values.” John and Kori’s first in-person encounter was arranged at Kori’s home in Ohio. “I felt like we had known each other forever,” said John. They were married on Dec. 27, 2003. “Things worked out very quickly. We were very blessed to find each other,” remarked John. Buono advises people to be patient with their online search. “Society tells us that we should come on the site, meet someone in one month and never need the service anymore, but this isn’t true. One woman found her husband after five years. I had to convince her to stick with the service five times,” he said. “I tell people that it takes God’s time, not yours.”

Although it is common to hear disaster stories about the tribulations of online dating, most users feel secure surfing the online dating world. According to Johnson, CatholicSingles.com has a zero tolerance policy for threatening behavior or inappropriate language. Other sites follow suit. Pejak believes that many sites take proper measures to dissuade people who aren’t serious about the process. “Overall, I would say that the caliber of people you meet is incredible. There are enough deterrents not to attract people who aren’t serious Catholics. Most people’s intentions are usually sincere,” said Pejak, who added that two of her close friends have joined Ave Maria Singles. “I told them that they will find a great man on there, but that I already nabbed the best one,” she joked. Buono has been invited to the weddings of several couples who met on Ave Maria Singles. It is bittersweet to see them off, he said, since he forms friendships with many of Ave Maria Singles users. But this is the destiny of online relationships. “We’ve had a lot of marriages, engagements and long-term relationships. We lose touch with them after they go away, but that’s what we are here for –– to help people find their soul mates,” Johnson said. “They meet on-line and get to know the person and their soul. If they fall in love with that person, they take it from there”.

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