As a newly ordained priest, Father Peter Deckman was surprised to find his eyes, mind and soul opened by the experience of living among impoverished Bolivian residents.
"I went in thinking I knew a lot about everything, and wound up learning a lot," Father Deckman recalled, explaining that the people of Bolivia "share their heart and soul. I learned that struggling for survival and struggling to do your best pays off. I see the heart of Jesus there."
Father Deckman has gone on to minister among the poor for most of his 44-year priesthood, logging two lengthy stints in Bolivia in addition to several migrant-community and inner-city assignments in the Diocese of Rochester. He will retire this June from his current role as parochial vicar in Rochester’s City West churches of Holy Apostles and Holy Family.
Father Deckman, who turned 70 on March 30, is a native of Rochester’s Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish. He attended Aquinas Institute, St. Andrew’s Seminary and St. Bernard’s Seminary, and was ordained June 6, 1964, by Bishop Lawrence B. Casey at Sacred Heart Cathedral. He then served for two years as assistant pastor at St. Thomas More Parish, Brighton.
In 1966 Father Deckman began an eight-year assignment in Bolivia, working with other diocesan priests and Bolivian Catholics to found San José Obrero Parish in a poor section of La Paz. In 1974 he returned from South America, ministering to Hispanic Catholics in Geneva and then becoming copastor of St. Michael Parish in Newark. In 1979 he went back to Bolivia, where he continued to minister until the mid-1980s.
"There’s need there. I felt I could share some of my talents with them," Father Deckman said, noting that his overriding goal was to help the natives become self-sufficient. He added that his appetite for such work was whetted by "the spirit of Maryknoll" and the order’s priests and brothers who perform worldwide missionary duty.
In 1987 Father Deckman became pastor of Rochester’s St. Francis of Assisi Parish, where he would remain for the next seven years. He then served in various capacities at St. Michael, Penn Yan/St. Andrew, Dundee, from 1994-99; as pastor of Auburn’s St. Francis of Assisi from 1999-2002; and as pastor of Rochester’s St. Michael and Our Lady of Perpetual Help from 2002-05. He has served in the City West parishes since 2005.
In addition to being a Maryknoll Associate, Father Deckman has done stints on the diocesan Priests’ Council and Stewardship Council, while also serving on the board of Charles Settlement House.
Father Deckman does not yet have a firm plan for his retirement years, but said he’d like to minister to a specific community that would perhaps involve putting his bilingual capabilities to use.
"You don’t retire from this business," he remarked, saying that he does look forward to "the ministry of priesthood with the privilege to work at my own speed."
Regardless of what his future holds, priestly service for Father Deckman will continue to be more about what he receives than what he gives.
"That’s the real privilege of a priest — to walk in and out of lives at precious moments," he said. "I’ve learned lots from the people I’ve served. I’ve worked with the rich and poor — an array of various cultures, different faces of God, different ways of doing things. It’s been a privilege to share in the lives of people as an instrument of the Lord."