1969, Cuernavaca, Mexico. He's studying at a ministry institute to become a Catholic priest. She's a nun enrolled in an intensive Spanish course.
By all accounts, this may not sound like the beginning of a sweet love story.
He is Roberto Chene, a man raised in Albuquerque's South Valley. "For Hispano families, the church is really important, and to have somebody in the church is really important," he says. That summer of ’69, he was in the seminary studying liberation theology, a branch of Catholicism concerned with social activism and human rights.
She is Connie Chene, at that time a member of a very liberal religious order, committed to working in the inner cities of Chicago toward social justice. Her convent came to the realization that if it wanted to make a difference in the lives of the children the nuns taught, they needed to speak their language—Spanish.
Down to Mexico the order went. The nuns arrived without a place to stay. They ran into Roberto and struck up a conversation. Luck would have it there was a vacant bungalow next door to one he was sharing with other priests-to-be.
Over the coming months, they shared a car, going to and from the schools. In the evenings, they would eat together. "Roberto and I just became really good friends," Connie says. "We were both committed to the vows we had taken, the concept of celibacy, the work were doing."
Roberto and Connie returned to the United States, stationed in different places. Then the letters started, "first once a month, then once a week, then every day," Connie remembers. "The conversations we had about the commitments we had made were what brought us close together, which is funny in a way." Roberto began visiting every now and again. Standing atop a sand dune after four solid years as only friends, they realized something had truly shifted. There could be no more pretending. They cared for each other. Connie went home that day wondering, "What am I going to do with this?"
"I was a typical guy in denial about my feelings," Roberto laughs. The realization of his feelings for Connie came at the same time he started to have questions about the institution of church in the context of liberation and social change. "I had philosophical reasons for thinking what I thought, but then I realized it was B.S." Roberto was in love.
In the meantime, the other nuns in Connie's convent took her on a retreat to Lake Charles, Ill. "They sat me on a swing and said, 'Listen, think this through, girl. There are lots of ways to serve. God doesn't want us to do something that's going to make us unhappy.'”
With their support, Connie left the convent to think about her life as a married woman. She wrote to Roberto, telling him she would attend his ordination, but otherwise, she wouldn't see him anymore. "It was too hard," she says.
Six months later, he wrote back. He'd quit. He wouldn't be ordained as a priest.
"I was dancing with joy," Connie says. "The whole convent was."
In January, Connie proposed. "I said, 'Are we going to get married or what?'" In June of 1973, all 11 nuns in Connie's order came down to Albuquerque to celebrate her marriage to Roberto.
Connie and Roberto are Catholics to this day and have remained committed to social justice and helping people deal with issues of oppression and inequality of institutions. They have two children together. They're not big into Valentine's Day, though Roberto has learned that buying your wife a ton of socks for V-Day doesn't quite cut it. In recent years, he's come up with flowers and something sweet. "One day, he said, 'Nobody ever gives me flowers,'” Connie says, so she's sure to get him a bouquet every year, too.