Deacons reflect on their ministries - Catholic Courier
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Deacons reflect on their ministries

The following permanent deacons are celebrating 30th and 25th anniversaries of ordination in 2018. All received diaconal training at St. Bernard’s Institute and were ordained by Bishop Emeritus Matthew H. Clark. Those celebrating their 30th jubilees were ordained June 5, 1988, while those celebrating their 25th jubilees were ordained June 12, 1993.

30 Years

Deacon Angelo Coccia

The call to be a member of the permanent diaconate was not something Deacon Angelo Coccia immediately recognized.

He initially brushed off friends’ suggestions that he consider the diaconate, and it wasn’t until they suggested it again — and his wife agreed he’d make a good deacon — that he seriously considered the vocation and began studying for the diaconate at St. Bernard’s Institute.

“The second year I really knew I wanted to be a deacon,” recalled Deacon Coccia.

As a child Deacon Coccia studied at Holy Family School and McQuaid Jesuit High School, both in Rochester. He later attended Rochester Business Institute and Rochester Institute of Technology and embarked on a 26-year career as a New York state court officer before discerning his calling to the diaconate.

Deacon Coccia initially was assigned to his home parish, Holy Family in Rochester, and later assigned to St. Theodore Parish in Gates. In 1988 he also founded St. Francis House Ministries, a not-for-profit organization that has aided soup kitchens and collected food and household items for people in need. He is grateful for the many people who have supported him and St. Francis House Ministries throughout the years.

“I’ve just had so many people helping me,” he said. “It’s truly been an honor to serve those communities I’ve been in.”

Deacon Gregg Lawson

Deacon Coccia and his wife, Patricia, live in Gates and have two children.

A future vocation as a permanent deacon in the Catholic Church was not something Deacon Gregg Lawson ever considered as a child. An Auburn native, he did not convert to Catholicism until young adulthood. 

Deacon Lawson, who is a graduate of Auburn Community College and Empire State College, earned a master’s degree in pastoral care from St. Bernard’s Institute and has served for many years as parish deacon at his longtime parish, St. Alphonsus in Auburn. He also served from 1994-99 at a parish in Joliet, Ill. He has worked as director of human services at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse and has been involved with the Knights of Columbus. He is a past president and current member of the board of directors of Hospice of the Finger Lakes.

Deacon Lawson and his wife, Paula, have three children and several grandchildren.

Deacon Robert McCormick

Teaching, counseling and reaching out to the elderly have been the three mainstays of Deacon Robert McCormick’s ministry for decades, and he has no plans to give up his ministry in any of those areas any time soon.

Deacon McCormick, a native of St. Ann Parish in Hornell, earned his associate’s degree from Alfred State College and his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from The University at Albany.

“I started teaching right out of college when I was 21. I was a teacher all my life and I still teach,” Deacon McCormick remarked.

Deacon McCormick was a business professor at Alfred State for more than 30 years, and after he retired from that post he began teaching at Pontifical College Josephinum. He currently is a member of the Ohio school’s adjunct faculty and teaches online courses in pastoral counseling.

After ordination he was assigned to St. Ann in Hornell. He also was assigned to work as a chaplain at St. James Mercy Hospital. He became a full-time chaplain there in 2005 after retiring from his teaching position at Alfred State, and currently is an on-call chaplain for the Hornell facility.

He also provides grief-counseling services at a local nursing home, leads a spirituality group with people in recovery from substance-abuse issues and provides individual counseling for St. Ann parishioners who request his services.

Early in his vocation, Sister Mary Jude Rockenbrock, RSM, brought Deacon McCormick along on her visits to local shut-ins, and he soon developed a passion for this type of ministry.

Deacon McCormick and his wife, Rose, have three children and seven grandchildren.

Deacon John Tomandl

“People are just people.”

That’s what 30 years ministering to people in the diverse settings of a parish, a hospital and a correctional facility have taught Deacon John Tomandl. 

“It doesn’t matter what crimes they’ve committed, it doesn’t matter what diseases they have, it doesn’t matter what religion they practice, it doesn’t matter whether they’re good or bad, whether they’re poor or rich. People are people,” he remarked.

Deacon Tomandl was born in Wisconsin but grew up in Auburn, where he belonged to St. Alphonsus Parish and attended the parish school. He also studied at Auburn’s East High School as well as Mohawk Valley Community College and Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio.

After ordination, he was assigned to St. Alphonsus. He later served in the diocesan youth-ministry office and for the Northern Cayuga Cluster, which later became Our Lady of the Snow Parish.

In 2003, he became a full-time chaplain at Auburn Correctional Facility. He retired from that position at the end of April but plans to volunteer at the facility in the future. He also has ministered at Auburn Community Hospital for more than 25 years. Deacon Tomandl appreciates the variety of opportunities his ministry has provided, he said.

“It’s just been my privilege to be called to minister to people in this very unique way. I’m still blown away by it when I think about it,” he added.

In addition to his pastoral ministry, Deacon Tomandl worked as an electrician, a computer programmer, a systems analyst and spent some time in the water-conditioning business. He and his wife, Carole, have three sons and nine grandchildren.

25 Years

Deacon James Chatterton

Deacon James Chatterton says it was the persistent pushing of his wife, Mary Margaret, who was the pastoral associate at St. Mark Church in Greece, and William Maune, the parish deacon at St. Mark, that led him to join the diaconate.

“They kept pushing and saying, ‘You would make a good deacon,’” he said.

A native of Rochester, Deacon Chatterton went to Aquinas Institute and Gannon University in Erie, Pa. He worked as the pricing director at Eastman Kodak Co.’s office of imaging division, which was then purchased by Danka Business Systems PLC in 1996. When the company decided to move the jobs to its headquarters in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1999, Deacon Chatterton stayed in Rochester and worked for Pitney Bowes for three years until he retired for health reasons.

Following his ordination, he served as parish deacon at St. Mark Church in Greece for 13 years (1993-2006) and then served at St. Lawrence Church in Greece, where he says he was one of the parish’s first deacons. Deacon Chatterton obtained senior status in 2013 for health reasons. In the years following obtaining senior status, he has helped out at St. Lawrence with sacramental preparation and religious education and currently serves as bookkeeper at St. Mark, working mornings three days a week.

“It gets me out of the house,” he laughed.

The Chattertons have been married for 53 years. They have three daughters — Deacon Chatterton performed all their wedding ceremonies — and six grandchildren.

“(Being a deacon) has been life changing,” he said.

Deacon Christopher Fisher

Deacon Christopher Fisher credits the establishment of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Hamlin and then-pastor Father William Amann for bringing him back to the church. After serving in the U.S. Navy for 10 years, Deacon Fisher began working as an engineering technician at Eastman Kodak Co. and moved to Hamlin with his wife, Lynn, and two children. 

“At the time (when we moved to Hamlin), we weren’t really practicing our faith with our two children. Once we moved out to Hamlin, Bishop Clark ignited a new parish out here, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and Father Bill Amann was asked to pastor; that’s when we returned back to church,” he said.

And things just felt into place from there, Deacon Fisher said. From there, he became an usher, sacristan, chairperson of the parish’s liturgy committee and then applied for the diaconate program.

“The (diaconate) program was a challenge for me academically,” Deacon Fisher noted. “I had a lot of support from the staff at St. Bernard’s and from my classmates, and that helped me through.”

“The program also brought a new awareness to my spirituality, which also developed during those four years,” he added.

After his ordination, he served as parish deacon at St. Helen Church, Gates, where he was involved in marriage and baptism preparation and services, social ministry, funerals, and hospital, nursing home and homebound visitation. In July 1998, Deacon Fisher returned to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, where he served as parish deacon for 12 years. He then served at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Brockport for three years before returning to the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. He continues to serve the Hamlin parish by helping out with marriage and baptism preparation, social ministry initiatives, weddings, baptisms, funeral services, and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program.

Though retired from Kodak, he still works as a cleaner at BOCES.

The Fishers have been married for 48 years and have two children and two grandchildren. Deacon Fisher says he is looking forward celebrating his anniversary with his classmates on May 12.

Deacon Michael Mahoney

When asked about his years in ministry, Deacon Michael Mahoney says he is “living the dream.”

“I have loved my life as a deacon,” he added.

Deacon Mahoney grew up in Indiana and Florida and joined the U.S. Marines when he was 18. Growing up in the Protestant faith, he became Catholic at the age of the 20 while serving in England. After more than 20 years in the military, he retired and began his life in ministry. He earned degrees from Benedictine College (BA in philosophy and religious studies), Naval War College (master’s degree in strategic studies), Cornell University (master’s degree in philosophy of religion), St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry (master’s of divinity) and Ashland Theological Seminary (doctorate in ministry).

From 1988-91, Deacon Mahoney served as a pastoral associate at St. Columba/St. Patrick, Caledonia. While studying for the diaconate in 1991, he served as a pastoral associate at St. Stephen Church in Geneva and continued to serve there following his ordination. He served as pastoral administrator and parish deacon at St. Mary of the Assumption, Scottsville (1996-2002), and as parish deacon at Holy Family Catholic Community, Wayland (2003-2008). He also led courses, ministry reflection groups, retreats and workshops at St. Bernard’s from 2001-08.

Deacon Mahoney is currently the parish deacon at St. Paul Church in New Berg, N.C., where he and his wife of 47-years, Monette, relocated in 2008. The couple has five children and 12 grandchildren. Deacon Mahoney also is founder of the Gates Ministry and provides counseling, spiritual direction, retreats and workshops for individuals, couples and families.

His North Carolina parish will celebrate Deacon Mahoney’s anniversary during a June 12 Mass. At the Mass, he will wear a special anniversary stole made by the wife of one of the deacons from the Diocese of Raleigh.

Deacon Warren Rutan

“It’s not about me, but what God is doing in me,” he said about his anniversary and celebration.

Deacon Warren Rutan was already in his 60s when he entered the diaconate. 

“I got in (to the diaconate) under the wire,” he said with a laugh, noting that if he were to enter the diaconate now at that age, he would be too old.

A native of Newark Valley, Deacon Rutan worked at IBM Corp. in Endicott as an engineer. He and his wife, Marion, were involved at St. John the Evangelist Church in Newark Valley, particularly in the Cursillo spiritual-renewal movement. During that time, Deacon Rutan said he had friends who were deacons, but he didn’t feel that it was the right time for him to pursue the diaconate. Then in a span of a week, he said three different people — who did not have contact with one another — told him that he would make a good deacon and that he should consider the permanent diaconate.

“I said, ‘Dear Lord, you hit me three times. You got my attention,” Deacon Rutan recalled.

He began formation during his final two years at IBM, retiring from the company in 1991. Following his ordination in 1993, Deacon Rutan was assigned to St. John the Evangelist, as well as the former St. Francis of Assisi Church in Catatonk. In addition to his parish ministry, he conducted hospital visits, served on the board of directors for Tioga County Rural Ministry and was chaplain of the Newark Valley Fire Department. Although he reached senior status in 2004, he helped out at all the Tioga County churches until the fall of 2016.

After spending their winters in Florida, the Rutans permanently relocated to Haines City, Fla., in November 2016. Deacon Rutan helps out at St. Matthew Parish in Winter Haven, where his youngest son is the director of music. The Rutans have five other children, 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Deacon Rutan will travel to Rochester May 12 and will serve as deacon for the Deacon Convocation Mass.

“I have had so many wonderful experiences,” he said of his ministry. “I have been blessed with what I have been able to do.”

Deacon Jerry Skerrett

Deacon Jerry Skerrett has committed most of his life and ministry to living out the consistent life ethic. After hearing a woman affiliated with a Birthright agency in the Southern Tier speak at his then-parish, St. Mary of the Lake in Ontario, Deacon Skerrett, along with his wife, Lee, founded Birthright of Ontario, Wayne County in the 1980s. The agency supports pregnant women and new mothers.

Following his ordination, the Skerretts served as pastoral associates at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Wayne County, which comprises St. Mary of the Lake, Church of the Epiphany in Sodus and St. Rose in Sodus Point. At the parish, the Skerretts were heavily involved in Stephen Ministry and spent countless hours visiting sick members of the parish.

“It kept us happy,” Deacon Skerrett told the Catholic Courier in 2011.

In addition to his work in the parish and at Birthright, Deacon Skerrett also ministered to Wayne County’s migrant community for many years, helping them obtain food, clothing and places to stay. He reached senior status in July 2011. In October of that year, Deacon Skerrett received the Diocese of Rochester’s Vita Award, which honors individuals for their deep commitments to the consistent life ethic and outstanding contributions in support of the dignity of life.

Deacon Robert (Bob) Stowell

Deacon Robert (Bob) Stowell says he wasn’t really jumping for joy over the thought of becoming a deacon. 

“I had hesitation after hesitation (about it),” he recalled.

But looking back on his 25 years in the diaconate, he said he would do the same thing all over again.

A native of Elmira, Deacon Stowell joined the U.S. Navy after high school. After his time in the navy, he worked for Sears Rohrbach in Horseheads, where he did some traveling with the company, helping to open new retail stores. He retired from Sears in 1991.

Deacon Stowell belonged to St. Mary Church in Elmira, where he was involved in the spirituality committee.

“They (the spirituality committee) were the key that got me interested in the diaconate,” he said. “Bishop Matthew H. Clark was also very instrumental (in my becoming a deacon).”

Following his ordination, Deacon Stowell served as parish deacon at St. Mary Church in Elmira for about 10 years before being assigned to St. Michael Church in Penn Yan, part of Our Lady of the Lakes Parish. He obtained senior status in 2011.

Despite some health problems that he said set him back a bit, Deacon Stowell says he is still active and did some preaching this past Lent and helped out with the RCIA program at Our Lady of the Lakes Parish.

Deacon Stowell has four children and five grandchildren and lives in Penn Yan with his dog, Kloe Ann.

More Jubilarians

The following deacons are celebrating their 35th anniversaries of ordination this year:

35 years: Deacons William Coffey, Ramon Datz, John Erb, Joseph Federowicz, Thomas Kluchko, Juan Lebron, Claude Lester, Joseph Mack, Agenol Rodriguez and Larry Van Etten


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