Detroit — Permanent deacons are a familiar part of parish life nowadays — doing baptisms, witnessing wedding vows, conducting wake services, reading the Gospel at Mass and sometimes preaching.
But it was not always so, as some of the 43 deacons in the Archdiocese of Detroit celebrating milestone anniversaries of their ordination this year can attest.
“The priests didn’t know what to do with us,” said Deacon Archie Noon, who was one of the first class of 13 permanent deacons ordained for the Archdiocese of Detroit back in 1972 and celebrating his 40th year of ordination.
Eastern Catholic Churches have had permanent deacons all along, but for centuries the diaconate continued to exist in the Latin Rite only as a transitional stage for men preparing for ordination to the priesthood.
Pope Paul VI changed all that in the 1960s, when he ordered the restoration of the historic diaconate, but it took until 1972 for the first class of deacon candidates to be prepared for ordination.
And it wasn’t just priests who were unsure about this “new” phenomenon of permanent deacons, Deacon Noon recalled.
“Not long after we were ordained, Msgr. Ed Baldwin invited Deacon Dick Conlin and me to assist him when he celebrated Mass for 700 nuns who were meeting at Mercy College. Well, we acted as deacons of the Mass, but when it came time for Communion, Msgr. Baldwin stood at the center with his ciborium, and Dick and I took our places to the right and the left with ours.
“Not a single one of the nuns came up to Dick, not one came up to me; all 700 went to Msgr. Baldwin,” Deacon Noon said.
“They apparently didn’t understand that we were ordained, and that it was legitimate for us to be standing up there distributing Communion,” he continued.
But when they again assisted at the same Mass the following year, “Dick got about a third of them, I got about a third of them, and Msgr. Baldwin got about a third of them.”
Deacon Noon was ordained by Auxiliary Bishop Walter J. Schoenherr at St. Mary, Our Lady of the Snows Church in Milford, which was his home parish. And it was there he continued to serve for 30-some years.
Two years after his ordination, he was also asked by Cardinal John Dearden to head the archdiocesan Health Care Chaplains Department, and did that in addition to his diaconal duties for 18 years until retiring when he became 72.
He remained at St. Mary, Our Lady of the Snows until achieving senior deacon status 11 years ago. But he was far from really retired.
“Shortly after, I was asked to go up to serve at the Mass station at Davisburg, which became Divine Mercy Parish, and I’ve been there for 11 years now,” he said.
While most 94-year-olds would probably think about taking it easy, Deacon Noon said he has no intention of really retiring “as long as I am physically able to do the work.”
Looking back on his diaconal ministry, he said the most rewarding aspect has been “all the children I baptized and the preparation of the families for the baptism.”
“I did an average of at least 100 a year for about 10 to 12 years there,” Deacon Noon said.
‘It’s an ancient order’
Although Deacon Lawrence Sullivan was ordained five years after Deacon Noon, he also remembers those early years before permanent deacons were fully accepted by pastors. “Even though they had all been deacons themselves, for them it was just part of the transition to priesthood. But it’s an ancient order, going back to St. Stephen … the first martyr,” he said.
That early awkwardness about their status had mostly disappeared by the late 1980s, said Deacon Sullivan, who completed his assignment at Sacred Heart Parish, Roseville, when he attained senior deacon status in late April.
He added that two days after his ordination anniversary would be the 43rd anniversary of his marriage to his wife, Andrea, and said the two vocations — as deacon and husband — had given him a fulfilling life.
Since ordination in 1977, he has served six years at St. Anastasia Parish, Troy; three years each at St. Justin Parish, Hazel Park; St. Thecla Parish, Clinton Township; St. Vincent Ferrer Parish, Madison Heights; St. Lawrence Parish, Utica: and St. Martin de Porres Parish, Warren.
He served five years at St. Edmund Parish, Warren; and was at Sacred Heart,Roseville, since 2003.
Deacon Sullivan said he has enjoyed his ministry: “I grew closer to God,” he said, adding that he still expects to help out where he is needed, even though officially retired.
Especially rewarding, he said, has been the opportunity to comfort people coping with the death of a loved one.
Deacon Sullivan also cited baptisms as a memorable part of his ministry, adding, “I did about 700 baptisms when I was at St. Anastasia alone.”
Joys and sorrows
Deacon Robert DeWitt, celebrating the 25th anniversary of his ordination, has served all of his ministry at Our Lady of Grace Parish in Dearborn Heights, where he said he has enjoyed being a part of the life of the parish all these years.
“There have been a lot of ups and downs, but mostly ups,” he said.
Among the “ups,” Deacon DeWitt said, have been “working with the people and serving the community.”
A major “down,” however, was the loss this past December of his wife, Mary. “I was blessed with a loving wife who was very supportive,” he said.
At 66, Deacon DeWitt said he has no plans of retiring soon. “Hopefully, I’ve got a few more years left in me,” he said.
Baptisms have been a particular joy for him, too. “I get a kick out of baptizing babies, and telling their parents that this is the beginning of their child’s spiritual journey. I always say, ‘As long as you parents and grandparents have an active, living faith, your child will,’” Deacon DeWitt said.
He said he has especially enjoyed being able to baptize all 10 of his grandchildren.
Officiating at weddings has also been a joy for the deacon, who has conducted the weddings of his children.
Archbishop Allen Vigneron celebrated Mass on April 29 at Sacred Heart Major Seminary for this year’s deacon jubilarians, followed by a dinner for the 43 men.