Eight new deacons were welcomed into the Diocese of Baton Rouge by Bishop Robert W. Muench during an ordination Mass on June 8 at St. Joseph Cathedral.
The eight men ordained into the diaconate June 8 at St. Joseph Cathedral are front row, from left, Stephen Ourso, Michael Thompson, Thomas Benoit and Leon Murphy. Back row from left are David Dawson, Louis McGinnis, Bishop Robert W. Muench, Mark Berard and Chauvin Wilkinson. Photos by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator.
Thomas Benoit, Mark Berard, David Dawson III, John McGinnis Jr., Leon Murphy Jr., Stephen Ourso, Michael Thompson and Philip Wilkinson Jr. were ordained during a two-hour ceremony that was an inspirational mix of solemnity with a palpable ebullience.
“The diocese and I, in particular, have tremendous admiration, respect and affection for our deacons, their wives and children, and for the diaconal community,” Bishop Muench said in his homily. “The dedication they have shown through discernment, application and acceptance all require extreme devotion and generosity.”
The bishop went on to say the diaconal ministry provides an incalculable benefit for the entire church. He mentioned several of the services deacons at the diocesan and parochial levels as well as special ministries.
Those services include chaplains at hospitals, prisons, jails and nursing homes, coordinating various ministries in parishes and serving as office directors or staff members at the diocesan level.
“Deacons, your role in your various places of appointment, in the workplace and in the neighborhoods in which you live enables you to be special agents of God to the searching and the drifted, the lost and the confused, the disbelieving and the doubting, the overwhelmed and burdened, the depressed and the lonely, the bitter and the angry, and so on,” Bishop Muench said. “In the mystery of God’s grace, divine faith and infinite love, each of us has been called to human life, to family, to faith, to Church to community, and in the case of you candidates, to diaconate.”
The bishop ended his homily on a literary note, quoting from Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Less Traveled.”
“You candidates have not chosen the simplest or most comfortable road nor the least demanding or least challenging road,” Bishop Muench said. “(Deacons) thank you for stepping up, for making the extra effort, for embracing the sacrifice, for taking the risk, for trusting. For through your person, life and ministry you make Christ singularly present.”
Following the homily, the bishop questioned each candidate about his willingness to embrace the duties of the diaconal ministry, followed by the candidates proclaiming of obedience to the bishop.
Perhaps the most spiritual part of the ceremony followed with the candidates lying prostrate on the altar during the Litany of the Saints.
Bishop Muench also performed the laying of the hands on each candidate.
A reception for the new deacons was held at the Catholic Life Center after the ceremony.
Nursing his spiritual life
By Barbara Chenevert
I’m sort of a Cajun, but I took the long way getting down here,” said Deacon Mark Berard, a 51-year-old chemist who likes to play Xbox and war board games.
Originally from Rhode Island, he said his great grandfather was a French Canadian who came to Rhode Island to work in the textile mills. That gives him Acadian roots, he said, laughing that he had “a-four generation stop-over.”
Deacon Mark Berard
Deacon Berard came to Louisiana to work at Dow Chemical after getting a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Massachusetts. He is a parishioner of Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Baton Rouge, where he will serve as deacon assistant.
His philosophy as a deacon is that “you have to meet people where they are,” he said. “I tend to be academic. I see the rules and think that’s important. But working in a nursing home and hospice ministry has been good in developing my pastoral side. You don’t’ tell people who are dying that they are going to hell because they didn’t follow the rules.”
The idea of becoming a deacon first cropped up while he was in graduate school, when the priest at the Newman Center he attended suggested it to him. Because he had a 2-year-old daughter at the time, he shrugged it off.
Later, after his move to Baton Rouge, he said he was an extraordinary ministry of holy Communion and his wife helped with the parish school of religion “but I was never ‘Mr. do everything at church.’ People weren’t asking me to become a deacon,” he said.
But when he attended a Promise Keeper conference for Christian fathers, the theme of service hit home. “It struck me strongly” because that is what the diaconate is about – service. He contacted then deacon coordinator Deacon Thomas Labat, who suggested he enroll in the Religious Studies Institute. After two years, instead of moving forward into deacon formation, he said officials recommended he stay out of the program for a while “to develop his spiritual life. I guess they thought I needed spiritual development and they were right,” he said.
During a retreat associated with RSI, he said the speaker told the attendees to try to imagine God’s hands. “I tried to imagine the hands of Jesus, but instead I saw a person in a wheelchair. I signed up for a year of hospice care in a nursing home,” he said.
“I feel spiritually connected when I am interacting with people rather than praying individually,” he said. “Praying with people who are dying is definitely a spiritual experience.”
He frequently worked with Alzheimer’s patients who are often confused and scared. He said his ministry was to just be a presence, to “make them feel loved.”
Deacon Berard said he met with a spiritual adviser, worked with the RCIA program and in the nursing home to develop a more fervent spiritual life. He then resumed diaconate formation.
Deacon Berard and his wife, Charlotte, also a chemist, have two daughters.
Deacon fulfilling lifelong dream
By Barbara Chenevert
Deacon David Dawson knows “the exact moment in time” when he realized he wanted a religious vocation: He was in sixth grade at St. Aloysius School taking part in a gathering of the “Come, Lord Jesus” ministry.
Deacon David Dawson
“You would go around the table and say what you wanted to be. The person before me, as a joke, said, ‘a priest.’ He said it in a mocking way. I was going to say I wanted to be a priest, but then I didn’t because he had made it a joke. I said a lawyer because my dad was a lawyer,” Dawson said.
But later in high school, one of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart approached him about a religious vocation. “I was flattered. That was the first official validation I had (that I might have a vocation.) But I told him ‘I am not ready right now.’ I knew I had to experience life because I would have asked myself, ‘what if?’ ”
In spite of those early life wishes, Dawson, 39, became a cardiovascular perfusionist, the person who keeps the heart going during by-pass surgery. But he fulfilled his lifelong dream when he was ordained a deacon for the Diocese of Baton Rouge on June 8. He will serve as deacon assistant at Sacred Heart Church in Baton Rouge.
Deacon Dawson said his real discernment process began about eight years ago when he was a parishioner of St. George Church and talked with then deacon and now Father Carey Bani and pastor Father Mike Schatzle who guided him to the vocations office.
“Since then I have dedicated myself to the church utterly and completely. I have never been so happy in my life. It feels natural,” he said.
Deacon Dawson is the father of a 10-year-old daughter, Jacquelyn, who he said God put in his life so he would learn patience and others virtues. “If I had not had my daughter, I would never have known what unconditional love is.” Dawson said he involves his daughter in everything he does in the church.
Because he is now single, Dawson will be the only member of this year’s diaconate class who will also take a vow of celibacy. He said it wasn’t hard to make that decision. “While I was in the discerning process, I went on a few dates, but I always felt I was betraying myself when I did that.” Deacons can be married at the time of ordination, but cannot marry once they are ordained.
Deacon Dawson owns a Harley Davidson motorcycle and a camper, played in a rock band and loves hunting and fishing, something that spurred Father Paul Counce to call him a “perpetual hobbyist” when he served his internship at St. Joseph Cathedral earlier this year.
“I got some awesome liturgical experience and a minor in canon law,” he said of his time at the cathedral. Father Counce, pastor of the cathedral, is a canon lawyer.
The deacon said he loves working with people and looks forward to being in an active vibrant parish.
Deacon Mark Berard kneels before Bishop Robert W. Muench for the Handing on the Book of Gospels during ordination ceremonies this past Saturday at St. Joseph Cathedral.
McGinnis follows God’s signs
By Barbara Chenveret
Three times John Louis McGinnis Jr. believed God was sending him a sign that he may have a vocation in the diaconate. He kept dismissing the idea, until one day he finally gave in. “I said, ‘OK, God, I think I got it now.’ I don’t know how many more times he needed to pitch something to me.”
McGinnis, 58, will serve as deacon assistant at St. George Church in Baton Rouge.
Deacon John Louis McGinnis Jr.
More than 20 years ago, Deacon McGinnis said he received two master’s degrees and was about to begin work on a Ph.wwD when he began entertaining the idea of the priesthood. But he pushed that thought away.
It was not until Easter of 2006 that the idea resurrected when one of his wife’s relatives, a religious sister, out of the blue asked him about the diaconate. “We weren’t talking about anything religious, when she looked me square in the eye and said, ‘I think you would make a great deacon.’ ” Again he said he dismissed the notion.
In June 2006 he visited a cousin in Covington who also told him he would make a good deacon. Once again, he put the idea away.
A couple of months later, while attending a men’s barbecue at his home church parish of Our Lady of Mercy in Baton Rouge, he said he mentioned to Father Vic Messina that he had been having thoughts about the diaconate. Father Messina said he just so happened to be starting a gathering of men who were in the discernment process. “That’s how I came to this calling,” Deacon McGinnis said.
“Almost any one can do what I have done. I am nobody special. I wanted to know about the Catholic faith and that evolved into becoming a deacon. We are all called to be holy. God wants us to be the best we can be,” he said, adding his mission as a deacon would be to help people become the best possible versions of themselves.
He said he hopes to be able to show people that Catholicism is a “wonderful faith. Most people have about an eighth-grade education on Catholicism. They don’t do anything to improve that. If they think going to Mass on Sunday is the ticket, that’s not the case,” he said.
Deacon McGinnis is self-employed in a company that helps businesses improve their presence on the Internet.
He said he wants to continue to learn and to strengthen what he already knows so that he can teach others.
McGinnis and his wife, Mary, have one daughter, Michaelyn.
Submission leads attorney to new calling
By Barbara Chenevert
That one word started Chauvin Wilkinson on a journey to the diaconate.
Deacon Wilkinson, a 68-year-old retired lawyer, said he was just a “casual Catholic, one of the people in the pews,” who was living a busy life until one Sunday at Mass he heard a voice in his head say, “submit.”
Deacon Chauvin Wilkinson
“It was just a one-word sentence, but it sounded like a grand idea and I said, ‘yes.’ It was a glorious feeling. It was my first step toward the diaconate, but I didn’t know it then. I floated out of Mass. It was like nothing I ever felt,” he said.
He started reading everything he could about the Catholic faith and joined a Bible study group. A year passed, and as he was home reading, another word popped into his head: deacon. He said he didn’t understand why. He flipped through the book he was reading, but could find no references to a deacon. He brushed the idea off, but said he could not get the thought out of his head. “It was like a gnat buzzing around your head. You swat it, but it won’t go away.”
He knew little about what a deacon does, only that he dressed similar to a priest and sometimes read the Gospel at Mass. He began to research the diaconate, but thought, “This is ridiculous, this is not me. But then I remembered that word ‘submit’. I knew God didn’t make mistakes,” he said.
He made up his mind not to say anything to anybody – not even his wife. He let another year go by convinced that the idea of the diaconate would go away.
After a year, he told his wife, Kelly, who “wasn’t overly pleased,” because she thought they would spend their retirement traveling and visiting their four children and seven grandchildren, all of whom live out of town.
He decided to talk to a priest friend, who encouraged him to “release yourself into the process and you will find out whether it is for you. If you try to direct it, you will get the wrong signals,” the priest added.
Next he contacted then deacon coordinator Deacon Thomas Labat who invited him to a meeting of men discerning the diaconate. Shortly after, he enrolled in the Religious Studies Institute and then diaconate formation.
“The more I got into it, the better I felt. I was never really called to be a deacon, but called to a process and I let that process go through. Now I feel like I am where I need to be,” said Deacon Wilkinson, who is a parishioner of St. Joseph Cathedral, although he lives just north of Port Allen. He will serve as deacon assistant at St. Aloysius Church in Baton Rouge.
“I was very happily married, in good health, had good friends, and a good place and people at work. I never wanted to be anywhere else. But I always was conscious that something was missing,” he said.
He said he hopes to work in hospital, nursing home or prison ministry. “What attracts me most is trying to help people who really do have a problem, those who are deathly sick or significantly disabled or in prison and going to be there a long time. I want to help them think of a way to have their lives take a positive turn.”
Deacon Chauvin Wilkinson, right, pours the wine during preparation of the Liturgy of the Eucharist during the ordination Mass of deacons this past Saturday at St. Joseph Cathedral.
Ministry refreshes his soul
By Barbara Chevevert
When Deacon Stephen Ourso got discouraged trying to balance family, work and studying for the diaconate, Father Jamin David told him he had something he wanted him to carry in his pocket – perseverance.
“Things you want don’t always come easy” Father David told him.
Deacon Stephen Ourso
“So now I carry perseverance in my top pocket, my back pocket and in every pocket I have,” Deacon Ourso said. “The Holy Spirit has brought me through this big time. I wish I could say the journey has been pleasant, but it has been a balancing act between family, work and study.”
The 63-year-old parishioner of St. Helena Church in Amite is the chief financial officer for the Tangipahoa Assessor’s Office. He is retired from the civil parish school board and from the military where he spent 11 years in active duty and 26 years in the reserves. In addition, he and his wife, Nan, have three daughters, aged 21, 18 and 9. He will serve as deacon assistant in his home church parish of St. Helena.
How he wound up in the diaconate program is “no earthshaking story,” he said. He was raised Catholic at St. Joseph Church in Ponchatoula. During college, like so many others, his interest in church dissipated but returned. He visited the monastery at St. Benedict, thinking he might be drawn to the monastic life, but the “call wasn’t there. Then I met Nan and the rest is history until this June 8,” he said. He married late in life, at age 39. He moved his family to Amite 20 years ago.
One Sunday he was asked to serve at Mass and “something took place at the consecration that drew me in 1000 percent. It was a feeling that drew me quick-like when the priest elevated the host. I don’t know what happened but when I figure it out, I will write a book, but I knew there was something there I needed to explore,” Deacon Ourso said.
He enrolled in the Religious Studies Institute to learn more about the Catholic faith and said he came out of the first day “with more than he expected to get the whole year.” Diaconate formation followed.
Deacon Ourso said he has enjoyed working with Deacons Larry Melancon and Michael Agnello of St. Joseph in Ponchatoula in nursing home ministry. “Those people have a story and knowledge to pass on. They are wise,” he said of nursing home residents.
“Sometimes I may be the only person they see all week. I like old people, I guess,” he added. Nursing home ministry “refreshes me. I never come away depressed.”
Deacon Ourso called himself a “simple guy who feels the calling,” and said he hopes he can relieve the priests by assisting in their administrative and pastoral duties.
Ordination creates balance in life
By Barbara Chenevert
At the age of 70, Deacon Michael Thompson has had success as a lawyer, a homebuilder and a state legislator, but he said the best is yet to come.
“I hope the grace of holy orders will give me the ability to meet the challenges of being a deacon. It is a lot more serious than being a lawyer or being a legislator,” said Deacon Thompson, a member of St. Mary of False River Church in New Roads, where he will serve as deacon assistant.
Deacon Michael Thompson
An attorney by training and a homebuilder by trade, Deacon Thompson said he was first drawn to the diaconate when he read about the Religious Studies Institute in The Catholic Commentator. “I saw that RSI was coming and it was a prerequisite to the diaconate and college level courses. I wanted to learn more about the faith and I thought, ‘One of these days I’m going to slow down and retire and I think I would like to do that.’ ” Three years later he was accepted into the diaconate program.
“I’m very impressed with the fact that a deacon can affect people’s spiritual lives by participating in the sacramental life of the church,” he said. “I think there is a great need for adult education in the church if we are going to undertake the new evangelization. We need people to understand the Scriptures and communicate this to other people.”
Before entering the diaconate program, Deacon Thompson said he didn’t know much about the Bible except for the readings during Sunday Mass. “I learned what the writing of the Old Testament was meant to communicate to the people of the time and what context we should view it in today. I learned about the salvation events of the Jewish people that were fulfilled in Jesus Christ coming into this life and his death.”
Deacon Thompson said he grew up in Catholic schools and studied the Baltimore Catechism. RSI and the diaconate program have given him a knowledge of how the church defines itself in relation to Vatican II and how the Scriptures were brought together in writing the new Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Deacon Thompson has worked in Washington, D.C., for former Congressman Pat Caffrey, worked in private law practice, opened a homebuilding business and served in the state legislature for 16 years. As a state legislator, he said he sponsored pro-life legislation and helped the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops with legislation it supported. He was elected at the age of 29 and served until he was 45.
“I had a recovery period in between when I became more centered on spiritual things and not worrying about balancing a budget,” he said.
Thompson and his wife, Cheryl, have homes in Lafayette and New Roads. They have five children and five grandchildren.
After the ordinations were complete, Bishop Robert W. Muench, center, clergy members and deacons in attendance congratulated each new deacon. The new deacons pictured, right to left, David Dawson, Stephen Ourso, Michael Thompson and Leon Murphy Jr. along with Deacon Pat Broussard.
Awakening lit spiritual fire
By Barbara Chenevert
Deacon Leon Murphy said he is just an “old country boy” who is following what he is supposed to do in becoming a deacon for the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
“I fought with the idea of applying for the diaconate until the time I signed the letter (of application). Then I got calm and everything was good,” Deacon Murphy said.
Deacon Leon Murphy
The 56-year-old parishioner of St. Joseph Church in French Settlement retired as an instrument technician from the BASF Corp., took off for about six months and now works for ISC Inc. as a design engineer. He will serve as deacon assistant in his home parish of St. Joseph.
He said he remembers the exact moment and place when he first thought about becoming a deacon. “Twenty five years ago, Deacon Jimmy Little, right before his ordination, got up before the congregation to announce he was about to be ordained. I was sitting in the fourth pew on the left, because I came in too late to sit in my usual place in the back. When he made that announcement, it just came to me that I was supposed to do that too. But I kept fighting it – for 25 years. I used the same excuses people always give, things like ‘I’m not good enough.’ ” But he said the idea of the diaconate wouldn’t go away, so “I had to start listening to it.”
Deacon Murphy said up until that time, he attended Sunday Mass and “thought that was being active.” Since then he has become more involved in church life, teaching in the RCIA process, singing in the choir and helping with baptismal preparation seminars.
He said he had a spiritual awakening at a Cursillo retreat which two members of his Small Christian Community encouraged him to attend. “I was at a point spiritually where I was reaching for something more.” He called the Cursillo experience a real eye opener. “It opened a bunch of doors. It kindled that fire; got it burning again. But you have to be careful that it doesn’t get so hot that you burn out. But it was a big step for me.”
As a deacon, he said he would serve in any capacity he was called to, but hoped to continue to work with RCIA because it involved people who wanted to be there and wanted to learn.
In his spare time, Deacon Murphy said he likes to hunt and fish and do a little woodworking.
He and his wife Annette, have two daughters and two grandchildren.
Future in God’s hands
By Barbara Chenevert
Over the years, many people encouraged Thomas Benoit to consider the diaconate, but he said it took him “17 years to get moving.”
“It’s been a gradual call over the years – a long process,” he said. “The seed was first planted when Father Joel LaBauve was pastor of St. Isidore Church in the 1990s. He was the first to really ask me to consider the diaconate. My wife and I talked about it, but we were both working and our girls were in school. It was not the time to do it.”
Deacon Thomas Benoit
As people continued to mention the diaconate to him, Deacon Benoit said he prayed for a sign. One Sunday, Bishop Robert Muench celebrated Mass at St. Isidore and attended a reception afterward. During their conversation, the bishop asked Deacon Benoit if he had considered the diaconate. “I don’t know what I answered, but I thought, ‘I might as well.’ ”
Already enrolled in the Religious Studies Institute, he entered the diaconate process and was ordained on June 8. He will serve as deacon assistant at St. Pius X Church in Baton Rouge.
Deacon Benoit, an attorney, has been active in church ministry in his home church parish of St. Isidore in Baker for many years. He has been a lector since high school, an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, a liturgy coordinator and a catechist. In addition, with his wife, Leona, he has served as volunteer youth minister and on the teams for baptism and confirmation preparation.
“I see young people in the parish today as my own. I have my own daughters and my St. Isidore kids. In many ways, they are as much a part of our family as our daughters,” he said.
The Catholic faith has always been the center of Deacon Benoit’s family, something he said has been an asset to his 39-year marriage. He said he watched many of his friends leave the church and then return, but he was never away from the Catholic faith.
Deacon Benoit, 60, retired as general counsel for the State Office of State Benefits in December 2012 after 30 years of service. In February, he returned as special counsel to work on a project.
He grew up in Thibodaux, where he attended Catholic schools and graduated from Nicholls State University. He moved to Baton Rouge to attend LSU Law School and has remained here every since.
During his formation process, Deacon Benoit said he focused on his classes and his own spiritual development. Now that he has been ordained, he said he is both excited and “a little scared.” He compared it to the first time a client came to him for legal help. “I was listening to his story and it pops into my head that ‘this person really needs a lawyer.’ ” He laughed that he might want to advise someone seeking spiritual help to consult a member of the clergy, not thinking that he was now a member of the clergy.
But he said he is looking forward to serving. “Up to this point, I have been involved in what I felt called to. Now my future is in the hands of God and the bishop and I will trust them.”