RED LAKE FALLS, MINN. - Six frequent visitors to the St. Joseph's Catholic Church rectory have a lilt in their voice with their "Hello, Father" greeting to the priest living there.

"They're killing two birds with one stone," the Rev. Chuck Huck explained.

That's because the father is their father.

Huck's wife, Valerie, died of cancer in 2000. Recently, the 56-year-old celebrated his fourth anniversary as a priest.

On a recent Thursday morning at Sunview, an independent living facility for seniors, it was clear that attendees at mass were pleased with his decision. Although Huck said some Catholics are uncomfortable with previously married men entering the priesthood, none was found among the 20 who sat in a semi-circle in a community room that had images on the wall of Jesus, Mary, Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman.

Their reasons for embracing their priest were personal and practical.

"His situation is unusual, but he's well-accepted," said Hazel Perras, 96. "I've never heard a word otherwise. He's joyful and has a good sense of humor."

Several said they feel blessed to have a priest. Since 1965, the number of Catholics in the United States has doubled, but the number of priests has fallen from 59,000 to 40,000. Huck also serves parishes in neighboring Oklee and Brooks, Minn., and, combined with periodic trips to one other church and elderly living facilities, celebrates eight masses a week.

"With our big shortage of priests, I hope more step up and do the same thing that Father Huck did," said Anne Healy, 92. "We used to have four priests in Red Lake Falls, and now we share one with two other towns."

Connie Hanson Stocker sees his background as a plus. "He knows what people go through with their marriages and their families, so he can relate easier," she said. "He reaches out and touches people."

Mary Ann Benoit, Sunview's housing director, said she enjoys his casual manner. "He's relaxed and puts the message in today's language," she said.

The research arm of Georgetown University that studies the Catholic Church doesn't have specific data showing how many priests have been married. But Mary Gautier, a senior research associate, estimates the total is less than 5 percent. "It's certainly much more common than 50 years ago," she said.

As evidence, she said the average age at ordination now is 37 -- 12 years older than it was 50 years ago. It's no longer rare for priests in their 50s to be ordained, she said.

The Rev. Bill DeCrans, priest of St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Hallock, Minn., is another example.

"Father Bill and I and our wives were friends who baby-sat each other's kids, who were born three weeks apart," Huck said. "Our wives died four months apart, and we went into the priesthood about the same time."

The Sacred Heart School of Theology in suburban Milwaukee, which Huck attended, concentrates on serving men who enter seminary after age 30. Sacred Heart's numbers show that 69 percent of its seminarians have never been married, 20 percent had their marriages annulled, and 11 percent were widowed.

A vow of chastity

The church always has accepted previously married men into the seminary, Gautier said. "The only restrictions are that they enter the seminary single and take a vow of chastity," she said.

The first suggestion that he should become a priest came at age 7, when he was visiting his grandparents' farm. "My grandfather said I'd make a good farmer and a good priest," Huck said. "Starting then, I always watched what priests did."

The second hint came from his wife in her final days. "Val told me that I'd make a wonderful husband or a wonderful priest," he said.

Both were very active in the church, as readers, eucharistic servers and religious education teachers.

Huck said he received a few other signs that he should go into the priesthood. When he told his children, other family members and friends about his decision, none expressed surprise. The most common response, he said, was that they expected it.

"How did they know even before I knew?" he wondered with a laugh. "Everyone saw me as a priest."

He was 19 and Valerie was 18 when they married. They always had a full house. They had seven children, including three they'd adopted, and were hosts to about a dozen foreign-exchange students.

One of their children died in early adulthood. The others are now in their 20s and 30s.

Before Valerie died, their home was the gathering place for holidays. But that has since slowed.

"Dad is very busy on Christmas and Easter now," Huck said. "I loved being married and I loved raising a family. But I love this life, too."

He tells a story about how his two different worlds -- as father and Father -- interact.

One day he asked granddaughter Olivia, then 3, how she was doing. She was hesitant to answer at first.

But then she reached up and pulled out the white plastic tab from his clerical collar and replied, "I'm fine, Grandpa."

Said Grandpa, "She tore out the tab so I could be Grandpa again."

Olivia and the other nine grandchildren head to the toy chest in the study when they visit.

"I think I'm the only priest who has a Barbie doll," Huck said.