Deacons in Diocese of Rochester apply talents to ministry - Catholic Courier
Two men sit at a table.

Deacon George Welch leads a Scripture-study session March 11, 2022, at Elmira’s St. Mary Church. (Courier file photo)

Deacons in Diocese of Rochester apply talents to ministry

Deacon Fernando Ona vividly recalls his father’s parting words at the Manila airport in 1967 as the younger Ona was departing for medical school in the United States.

“He said, ‘Son, I have only one thing to request of you. Don’t forget the poorest of the poor,’” the Filipino native said.

Deacon Ona has taken his dad’s plea to heart, frequently blending health ministry — particularly to the underprivileged — into his lengthy medical career and 40 years as a permanent deacon.

Meanwhile, Deacon Daniel Hurley, who is observing 35 years in the diaconate, has put his fluency in Spanish to valuable use as a teacher, parish minister and prison chaplain. And Deacon George Welch, a member of the first class of permanent deacons in the Rochester Diocese in 1982, continues to utilize his background in education to lead parish initiatives in Elmira.

These three men offer examples of how career and personal expertise often carry over into diaconal efforts, said Deacon Edward Giblin, diocesan director of the permanent diaconate.

“We encourage guys in formation to bring what they can from their secular life into ministry, into service of the church,” Deacon Giblin said. He observed that doing so is a way of fulfilling Scripture exhortations to use one’s talents to carry out God’s will, as noted in I Corinthians 12:4-6, Romans 12:6 and I Peter 4:10.

Doctor/deacon started several ministries while in Rochester

While a doctor at the former St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, Deacon Ona led the creation of a shoe ministry at the former Ss. Peter and Paul Church nearby. The ministry provided poor and homeless people with appropriate footwear, and Deacon Ona likened the effort to the example of Jesus washing the feet of his apostles.

Another health-related initiative for the poor was launched in 1984, when Deacon Ona helped establish Mount Carmel House. The home for the terminally ill operated in the City of Rochester before moving in 2014 to its current location on Frisbee Hill Road in the Town of Greece. Deacon Ona noted that he and other founders were guided by the influence of Mother Teresa and her ministry to the dying.

In 1997, while still based in Rochester, Deacon Ona led the establishment of a free clinic in the Philippines that serves numerous villages and continues to this day. And since relocating to Hawaii in 2000, Deacon Ona has continued finding ways to provide health care for those who cannot afford it.

How could one doctor, seemingly so busy with the demands of the medical profession, manage to immerse himself so deeply in community outreach?

“When you enjoy doing things and helping, you find the time,” Deacon Ona said.

Knowledge of Spanish paved way for ministry in Rochester Diocese

Deacon Hurley’s enjoyment of Spanish led him to begin a career as a full-time teacher — yet his proficiency in the language has taken him in unforeseen directions.

In the mid-2000s, Deacon Hurley served as pastoral administrator of Rochester’s St. Michael and the former Our Lady of Perpetual Help churches, two predominately Hispanic parishes. He recalled that he and the late Father Laurence Tracy spent considerable time at the Rochester Public Market, ministering to people in Spanish. In addition, he taught graduate theology courses to Hispanic men in diaconal formation at St. Bernard’s Institute, now St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry.

More recently, as chaplain at the Mid-State and Marcy medium-security correctional facilities near Utica, Deacon Hurley used his strong grasp of Spanish to build trust with the prisons’ many Hispanic inmates. He also started bilingual initiatives in Bible study, weekly rosary and other devotions.

Looking ahead, Deacon Hurley — who is assigned to Ithaca’s Immaculate Conception Parish — said he expects to become more involved in Spanish Masses for the growing Hispanic population in the Tompkins County region.

“I never would have been able to predict any of this stuff,” he remarked. “I’ve just opened myself up to whatever God wants from me, and how can I answer so that God’s kingdom can be built?”

Deacon Welch helped built God’s kingdom through a long career as a teacher and principal in the Elmira City School District, as well as his 42-year tenure — and counting — as a permanent deacon.

He has served in many ways at churches within Elmira’s Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish. Among his ministries have been programs for adult initiation into the Catholic Church; children’s faith formation; adult book and Scripture studies; organizing retreats; and contemplative prayer outreach. He also has assisted with diaconal formation for the Diocese of Rochester.

Deacon Welch said his experience in public education helped equip him with relationship-building skills that are vital in diaconal ministry. He added that his professional work and ministerial duties have both involved “organizing and inviting people into being part of the learning process.”

Pointing out that a deacon is called first and foremost to a life of God’s service, Deacon Welch — who remains active in parish ministry and also as the longtime hospital chaplain for Arnot Health in Chemung County — sees an additional link between the diaconate and his educational experience.

“I really feel that in our professional lives, and in our faith, it’s all about serving one another,” he said.

Tags: Deacons
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