CROOKSTON — His spiritual re-awakening in the mid-1990s, sparked by an evangelical men’s movement, nearly led Stephen Thomas to leave the Catholic faith he had been born and baptized into and schooled in for years.
On Saturday, in the sunlit Cathedral in Crookston, Thomas, husband, father and Grand Forks music store owner, became a cleric in the Roman Catholic Church as Bishop Michael Hoeppner laid his hands on his head, conveying an office that harks back 2,000 years.
Thomas and five other men were ordained permanent deacons in the Crookston diocese during a two-hour service in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception before hundreds of people.For the ebullient businessman with biblical names, it seems a tale with the Prodigal Son, Stephen, the stoned first deacon, and doubting Thomas rolled into one.
Thomas, 53, grew up going to Sacred Heart Catholic schools in East Grand Forks, graduating high school there in 1973. He kept up a church-going image and found success in business, becoming an owner, with Dick Meyerchin, of Scott’s Music Stores, in downtown Grand Forks and Columbia Mall.
But he says “my inside didn’t match my outside.”
“From 20 to 40, I was running with the world. I was a hypocrite.”
Then a good customer at Scott’s Music persuaded Thomas to attend a huge Promise Keeper’s rally in the Metrodome in Minneapolis in 1995.
“I told him, ‘I don’t want to hold hands with 65,000 men and sing Kumbaya. I’ll pass,’” Thomas remembers.
But he went. And got God-smacked.
“Some people have sort of a gentle journey with God. Mine was more of a St. Paul on the road to Damascus. I was just confronted with the reality of a relationship with Jesus Christ,” he said. “It was like He reached down and grabbed me and said, ‘Come here, son.’ He sort of pulled me through all of my sin and brought me into a relationship with Him.”
As much as the experience awakened him spiritually, it also nearly made him leave Catholicism. He developed close friendships with several evangelical pastors and questioned his childhood church.
“I almost left the Catholic church,” he said. “But I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I went back into my faith with the idea of disproving it and really ended up with a love affair. I don’t think my journey is complete yet. I still have a lot of questions. … But I know that I know this is where I am to be.”
Where that is now is to serve, not to be served, Bishop Hoeppner told the six new deacons in the diocese that covers northwestern Minnesota. Besides Thomas, they are Gary Hager, Detroit Lakes; Thomas Jirik, Hawley; Donald Klick, Laporte; Allen Kukert, Moorhead; and John Muller, Two Inlets.
In the century-old Crookston diocese, with 36,000 members and only 33 priests to go around to 69 parishes, deacons fill a vital role and one that is growing, said Monsignor David Baumgartner, vicar general of the diocese. The six new deacons will join 10 others.
The first deacon, the Bible says, was Stephen, one of seven men chosen by the apostles to serve at tables and do other practical help so the apostles could preach and teach, Thomas points out.
“But in effect, Stephen was an evangelist,” Thomas said in an interview before his ordination of the first Christian martyr. “He went out into the street, and it ended up costing him his life. He got stoned.”
Thomas, too, sees his work as “serving people with the gospel.”
“I don’t want to whack people with a Bible,” he said. “I want to be able to find the Christ in them and hopefully they can find the Christ in me, and we can walk and talk together.”
His diaconate training took five years, “50 weekends,” he said. Deacons cannot celebrate Mass or give absolution at confession. But they can assist at Mass, lead the liturgy, teach and sometimes even preach, baptize, bury, witness marriages and distribute the Eucharist.
The permanent diaconate is one of the three clerical orders in the Catholic church. But both bishops and priests — for the past 1,000 years at least — vow to be celibate.
Deacons usually are married.
In fact, more and more, their wives take much of the training with them.
On Saturday, Bishop Hoeppner first asked the six wives if they were OK with it all before he laid hands on the men.
“Do you with your husband accept this life together in ministry?”
The six women, each standing next to her mate, said in unison, “With God’s help, I do.”
Steve and Jackie Thomas have been married 33 years. Nobody knows him better or been with him through more, he said.
Jackie said, “We have known each other since second grade. We grew up together.”
They have three daughters; Katie, 27, is teaching English in South Korea; Laura, 21, finished a Senate internship and soon will start graduate school at George Washington University; 26 years ago, Sarah died at three months of a heart condition.
“The great thing about the diaconate is it really is a ministry of husband and wife,” Thomas said. “We will do this together.”
Jackie knew God was behind her husband’s drive to be a deacon.
“I wanted to be on the same page as him spiritually,” she said. “It’s added a dimension to our marriage. I’m looking forward to working in ministry together.”
They already teach Bible studies and other classes together. She works part time at the music store, where they feel free to share their faith, she said.
Sam Pupino was in the first class of deacons ordained in 1979 in the Fargo diocese, which now has about 40 deacons. He is a deacon at St. Thomas Aquinas, the Newman Center at UND, and he is director of planned giving for the Crookston diocese. He was one of about a dozen deacons who hugged the new deacons Saturday.
“Every deacon has two vocations,” Pupino said. “His marriage and being a deacon.”
His wife, Kaaren, has been an essential partner in whatever he does as a deacon, said Pupino, who ran Wilkerson Hall’s food service at UND for 20 years. “You really are to be a servant of the people.”
Some deacons work full time for a parish or diocese.
But like Pupino and most deacons, Thomas won’t be paid and will continue in his “day job.”
One of his missions will continue to be reaching out to other churches.
Bob Bartlett, pastor of Cottonwood Community Church in Grand Forks, was one of several of Thomas’ Protestant friends who attended his ordination. He met Thomas just after the Flood of 1997.
“He held a retreat at his cabin on Cable Lake, near Maple Lake, for pastors,” Bartlett said Saturday before the ordination. “He paid for everything, had a golf tournament, a steak dinner.”
Bartlett still uses Thomas’ cabin as a personal retreat, and the men laugh and pray together.
Thomas’ ordination is “absolutely wonderful,” Bartlett said. “We need many more men like him.”
Thomas has brought Bartlett in to Sacred Heart to speak to teenagers, despite what could be seen as big divides between their two churches.
“I don’t think God is as caught up in our denominational differences as we are,” Bartlett said. “And the love of Christ transcends all denominations.”
Thomas has played a big role at Sacred Heart for years and becoming a deacon will formalize much of what he already does, said the Rev. Larry Delaney, the parish priest.
The doubting this Thomas has done serves him well in counseling others studying the Catholic faith, Delaney said.
“He has certainly gone on a spiritual journey, so he knows what the journey is all about.” Grand Forks Herald