Father Chris Roussell had been a priest for three years in Louisiana when he entered into a “dark night of the soul.”
This painful internal struggle ultimately led him to leave the Roman Catholic priesthood so that he could pursue his dream of having his own family.
Louisiana was in the midst of Hurricane Katrina, and he had sheltered his mother and sister for months at his rectory.
“When they left, I felt such a profound longing for my family,” said Roussell. “Coming together to support each other during the hurricane reinforced my deep desire to start a family of my own.”
It wasn’t the first time Roussell had struggled with being a Catholic priest. Although he loved the six years he had spent studying at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, he often felt pangs of longing for the life he knew he was leaving behind: one that included a wife and children.
Emerging from his “dark night" experience after Hurricane Katrina, Roussell spoke to his bishop about leaving the Catholic priesthood.
“I was finally ready to leave behind my dream of being a priest — a dream I’d had since I was a kid growing up with a solid Roman Catholic family in New Orleans,” he said.
The bishop was kind and compassionate, granting Roussell the leave he desired and the opportunity to pursue his dream of becoming a husband and father.
Roussell went to work for a non-profit in Baton Rouge, and while he was out one evening, he ran into his now-wife, Alison. The two were both Catholics who had grown up together in the same neighborhood in New Orleans. Their families were friends, and they’d even attended the same grammar school.
“I’d always had a crush on her,” said Roussell, his eyes twinkling. “She’d always been the most beautiful and sweetest girl in school.”
Alison had learned that Roussell had left the priesthood, and he had heard she was no longer married: It was divine timing.
“To be honest, I was terrified that God was pretty angry with me at this point. Instead, he brought me this beautiful woman who had two children. I saw her presence as God’s blessing,” said Roussell.
After a year of dating and praying together for guidance, the pair decided to get married. However, it was forbidden for them to marry in the Catholic church: Alison was a divorcee, and Roussell had left the priesthood.
Roussell called an Episcopal priest friend, who agreed to marry the couple in the Episcopal church where Alison’s daughters attended school. “Even after we were married in the Episcopal church, we continued to practice the Catholic faith and raise our children Catholic.”
However, not being able to receive the sacraments was hard on the couple. “We felt like we were moving farther and farther away from God,” said Roussell.
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One Sunday, the Roussells attended an Episcopal service because they felt they desperately needed to receive Communion. “We both sobbed because it was the first time we’d received the body and blood of Christ since we got married. It was like drinking from the fountain after we’d been in the desert for so long.”
That’s when the couple started their process of becoming Episcopalians.
“We love the Episcopal faith because of its openness to all of God’s children. We were welcomed right away and offered the sacrament. We needed that grace and gift from God,” explained Roussell.
During that time, Roussell realized he missed being involved in ministry, so he became a hospice chaplain. The experience fulfilled him and made him realize that he yearned to be a priest again.
“I felt that God was calling me to serve somewhere other than Louisiana,” said Roussell. “I didn’t want to be the former Catholic priest creating scandal there.”
Roussell said God again took his hand and guided him down the right path. David Seger, formerly of Rapid City, had become the interim rector at his church in Baton Rouge — and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Segers helped the Roussells make the connection to Rapid City, where the priest at Emmanuel Episcopal Church was leaving.
Roussell quickly snapped into action to have his holy orders received by the Episcopal Church.
At first, Roussell thought: “There’s no way I’m moving to South Dakota!”
But when he and Alison visited Rapid City in March 2013, the pair were surprised.
“The church was fantastic, the school system was great, and the people were so friendly. I met with Bishop John Tarrant, who is such a holy and prayerful man. Meeting him, I knew I was called to be here. Alison and I felt that the spirit of God was here, and this is where we were called to be.”
The Roussells arrived in Rapid City in mid-August to settle into their home and enroll their daughters at school. Caroline, 13, attends Saint Thomas More Middle School and Meredith, 10, is a student at Saint Elizabeth Seton Elementary.
On Sept. 1, Roussell officially started as the priest-in-charge at Emmanuel Episcopal — which celebrates its 126th anniversary this November.
“I want people to know that I’m not an Episcopal priest just so I can be a married priest,” said Roussell. “It’s so much deeper than that.
"I love my Catholic tradition, faith and upbringing — but I know I was called to be an Episcopalian. It’s where I feel closest to God and his son, Jesus Christ.”