Deacons recall vocation journeys - Catholic Courier

Deacons recall vocation journeys

Several of the 10 permanent deacons marking their 25th and 30th anniversaries of ordination this year answered the call to vocation after converting to Catholicism.

“We have a fair share of deacons who were raised in other Christian denominations or without any faith background in their upbringing,” noted Deacon John Brasley, diocesan director of deacon personnel and deacon formation.

“Those who discern the call to become Roman Catholic and then are received into the church as adults are sometimes more zealous in their faith and more open to discerning the call to ordained ministry, sometimes even more so than with many ‘cradle Catholics,’” Deacon Brasley explained.

One such convert was Deacon James Fitch, who was introduced to Catholicism during high school when his future wife invited him to Mass at St. Michael Church in Newark. There, he met Father Joseph McDonnell, who provided instruction and guidance in the faith. Having been baptized in the First Evangelical United Brethren Church, he converted to Catholicism before marrying his wife of 59 years, Donna.

Deacon Fitch said he “had a wonderful relationship” with Father McDonnell, whom he described as “very supportive.”

Years later, while working as a bank manager, he began to think about becoming a deacon and will celebrate his 30th anniversary of ordination this spring.

“I think serving people at the bank had some influence on my wanting to serve in a different way,” said Deacon Fitch, who had a longtime career with JP Morgan Chase. “I was influenced also by the fact that there was a shortage of priests. I thought not of the priesthood but of being able to support them and take some of the stress off of them.”

He added that his banking career also helped him easily transition to ministry as a deacon.

“I liked meeting people and trying to help them meet their needs,” Deacon Fitch noted.

Another convert who had no prior religious affiliation, Deacon Greg Sampson, and his wife, Carole, went through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in the early 1980s, receiving instruction from the late diocesan archivist Father Robert F. McNamara, who emphasized restoration of the permanent diaconate as one of the outgrowths of Vatican II.

“I thought I got a little encouragement from him to pursue (the diaconate) at some point, which I did,” added Deacon Sampson, who is marking his 25th jubilee this year.
Similarly, Deacon Ed Smith received encouragement to consider the diaconate from Father William Cosgrove at St. Dominic Church in Shortsville.

Not long after he became Catholic and started attending Mass regularly at St. Dominic with his wife, Barbara, Father Cosgrove “must have recognized something going on there” and suggested the diaconate, recalled Deacon Smith, who had been raised in the Presbyterian Church.

For many years after his 1992 ordination, he maintained his job with Mobil Chemical Co., working his way up to a supervisory position. His employer and staff were understanding if he had to arrive a little later in the morning to preside at a prayer service, Deacon Smith said.

He noted that in his interactions with others, both then and now, he makes people aware that he is a deacon and tries to bring a Catholic perspective to discussions.

Like the converts in their number, the cradle-Catholic deacons celebrating jubilees this year bring a wide variety of professional experiences to their diaconal ministries.

Deacon Thomas Cass began diaconal ministry after retiring from an engineering position at Xerox Corp. and soon assumed responsibilities at the diocesan level. First, he implemented the findings from the diocesan synod that took place in the early 1990s, he said.

Later, Deacon Cass, who is celebrating his 25th jubilee, served as diocesan director of deacon personnel. Following that assignment, he took a leave of absence to travel abroad for a year with his wife, Jean, then returned to New York in the early 2000s and began a 13-year stint as caretaker of the Sisters of Bethlehem Monastery in Sullivan County, near the Catskills Mountains.

“Other than Mass, I did almost everything,” he said. “I got eternal life insurance.”

Teaching philosophy and doing social work as a substance-abuse counselor in the early 1990s also provided a good foundation for the ministry of Deacon Claude Curtin.

“It kind of flowed into my work as a deacon, which involved me in working with people in various relationships and also thinking about the faith and preaching and teaching,” said Deacon Curtin, who is celebrating his 25th jubilee.

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