By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published February 16, 2006
A Jewish man was drawn first to daily Mass and later to join the church and finally to the diaconate after a near death experience. A Vietnamese refugee wanted to give back to the church that helped him rebuild his life from scratch. One Hispanic never forgot how his father asked him as a boy if he wanted to be a priest, and saw immense needs in his community. A businessman was inspired by the humble witness of deacons at his parish to take the next step in service to the church.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory ordained these and the rest of a class of 15 men on Feb. 4 to the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Atlanta as they pledged to carry out a ministry of service and charity and to provide critically needed parish services as did the first deacons serving the early church.
Friends and family of the men packed into the pews at the Cathedral of Christ the King and expressed joy as they shared stories of how their dedication had touched and shaped their lives. With the five-year formation program behind them, the men glowed from having acted on the quiet, persistent call to offer their lives in this special way to Christ through the diaconate.
Jewish convert Deacon Stuart Neslin had an especially profound sense of gratitude for each breath of life and the peace of Christ that led him to the diaconate. The native New Yorker and human resource director was raised in the Jewish faith and then married a Catholic. He and his wife decided to attend a Presbyterian church. But in 1994 everything he had worked for was nearly taken away “in one fell swoop” as he went into heart failure after surgery. In the months following he faced several reconstructive surgeries, rehabilitation and unemployment.
“It was a wake-up call,” Deacon Neslin said.
He was drawn to daily Mass where “I found that faith and spirituality became much more important in my life.” He was comforted by intercessory prayers offered for him and by the common scriptural themes in Judaism and Christianity. As he recovered, he became increasingly involved in volunteering for the church, even teaching himself Spanish to better serve Hispanics, and after becoming a Catholic in 1999, he felt a strong call to the diaconate.
“I’ve found Catholicism to be tremendously fulfilling,” he said. “I’m grateful for God’s many blessings in my life and for the call to Holy Orders.”
Over 50 priests concelebrated the ordination Mass for the candidates. All in the class are married men, ranging in age from 40 to 64 and serving parishes across North Georgia, including in Rome, Riverdale, Peachtree City, Newnan, Dallas and others in the metro Atlanta area.
In addition to Neslin, the new deacons are Mike Bickerstaff, David Corbett, John Duffield, Albert Feliu, Harold Garrett, Thomas Gotschall, B. David Grubbs, James LaFreniere, Jim McDermott, Ken Melvin, Joseph Phu Hoa Nguyen, Jose Orellana, Hector Vargas and Michael Woods.
The class by profession includes a writer, nuclear engineer, vice president of operations, accounting and business management professional, retired supervisor, human resources director, city employee, telecommunications project manager, construction consultant, electronics technician, development director, small business owners, a subcontractor, and a nurse trainer.
Deacon Woods is from England. Deacon Orellana left Guatemala at 20 during civil war in order to support his family. Deacon Vargas came from Puerto Rico, while Deacon Nguyen fled here from South Vietnam following the fall of Saigon.
All had already made time alongside their careers for service to the church and the community using their unique combination of gifts, whether it be Bickerstaff guiding people in exploration of the Bible, Gotschall serving as a Cub Scout leader and Boy Scout advisor or Melvin founding, with his wife, a subsidized home for families with special needs and serving as an advocate and catechist for those with disabilities.
Deacon Felieu, a Bell South project manager and Air Force Academy graduate, is completing his fourth master’s degree online. He’s also writing his first book about diaconate formation experiences, including reconciliation and encountering God. He finds that deacons bring a frame of reference as husbands and fathers that people really appreciate.
Members of the Archdiocesan Festival Choir deepened the spirit of solemnity and celebration of the occasion. Each singer represented a parish for which a deacon was being ordained. Founded in 2002, the Festival Choir is a group of 70 singers who come from over 35 parishes in the archdiocese.
The Cathedral aisles were packed and there were overflow seats in the parish hall. The first reading from Jeremiah reflected the spirit of courage and surrender in which the deacons will embark upon this new ministry: “To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak. Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord,” Bersi Orellana proclaimed in Spanish.
The second reading from the Acts of the Apostles addressed how the apostles appointed the first deacons to assist them. “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word,” read Teresa Chinh in Vietnamese, wearing a long black velvet Vietnamese dress.
Deacon Dennis Dorner, director of deacon personnel, called the candidates forward, and director of formation Deacon Loris Sinanian presented the candidates to Archbishop Gregory, who elected them to the order.
The archbishop spoke of three ancient qualities needed for deacons that have little to do with job experience, education or fiscal accomplishment. They must be trustworthy men of integrity and good reputation and be full of the Spirit.
“The Spirit inspired people to great acts of charity, courage and allegiance to the faith. We need these same qualities today just as much as we did in the early church.”
He spoke of the challenges of serving in this archdiocese where Catholics speak languages ranging from Igbo and Spanish to Portuguese and Korean, and “a few even English.” But he affirmed that they are deemed worthy to serve in this “multicultural, multilingual, rich community that is the Archdiocese of Atlanta.”
While nobody in ordained ministry is perfect, “I shall invoke in my prayer of ordination that you must be transformed into the kind of servant leader that will do the Lord’s will and care for His people.”
He said the men must open their hearts and lives “to all the promptings of the Spirit provided you are to be men of generosity and dedicated to the work of charity” and reverent at the altar. He advised them to deepen their daily prayer life to find strength and wisdom to carry out their different roles. “May we work together in harmony as priests, bishops and deacons did of old so that the entire church throughout North Georgia will grow resplendent in justice and charity.”
Each candidate then knelt before the seated archbishop and pledged his obedience to him and his successors, to follow Christ and to proclaim the faith in word and deed. The men then lay prostrate down the center aisle as the choir led the congregation in the Litany of the Saints. After the archbishop laid hands on the men and then led a prayer of consecration, the men were vested in their stole and dalmatic, as digital cameras steadily flashed and video cameras recorded the excitement of the day. Later, smiling, the archbishop presented each a large red book of the Gospels with a gold cross on it.
To begin the Liturgy of the Eucharist the choir softly chanted “Ubi Caritas” that welled up throughout the Cathedral and quieted the worshippers.
In closing Deacon Sinanian addressed the men. “For the past five years I’ve seen each of you grow and mature in your faith. Now it’s time to take what you’ve learned and give it back to the people of the archdiocese. As it says in Scripture, those to whom much is given much is required. Much is required of you.”
He honored deacon candidate Victor Marulanda who died Jan. 2, shortly before completing the formation program. The native of Colombia had served the Hispanic ministries of several parishes.
“We want to thank you for being such a great example of service and charity,” he said.
Attendees packed into the parish hall afterward for a reception and to receive blessings from the newly ordained.
Deacon Neslin expressed gratitude to Deacon Sinanian and the formation staff who volunteered their time to serve them.
“We have had the privilege to be led and taught by an outstanding group of clergy and lay persons; they’ve been tremendous role models of spirituality for us,” he said.
With his Jewish heritage he finds much commonality with Catholicism in spirituality and practice, and noted, “The elements of Mass are not unlike the Jewish Seder which is essentially a replication of the Last Supper.”
Deacon Neslin has a special interest in sacramental preparation, catechesis and Hispanic ministry in his Rome parish. He became involved with Hispanic ministry when St. Mary Church pastor Father James Miceli asked him to lead an English as a second language program. He did this for five years and taught himself Spanish along the way through the class and by assisting at the Spanish Mass for several years.
“I enjoy the challenge of Hispanic ministry in the context of the fact that we are all one church. I am also very impressed with the faith, devotion and spirituality of Hispanic Catholics,” he said.
Deacon Bickerstaff said that during the Mass he felt a strong sense of confirmation that he was doing what he was supposed to be doing. “The grace that comes with the sacrament is so confirming that I can’t stop smiling.”
He is the part-time adult education coordinator at St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell in addition to owning a consulting business. He loves teaching and believes that “Catholics are hungry for more knowledge about their faith.” He is working to expand adult education offerings, including an introductory Jeff Cavins Bible study and Ignatius Bible commentaries.
Growing up, his Catholic mother’s and Baptist father’s love for Scripture, Mary, and the faith “lit a fire in me at an early age” and “a love for Jesus and Scripture.” He looks forward to helping parishioners to deepen their knowledge of and relationship with God, as “learning and prayer are two absolutes” for spiritual growth.
Debbie Dobson came in support of Deacon Bickerstaff, as he had sponsored her when she completed the RCIA program at the parish. She says that he’s the reason she’s Catholic.
“He’s very charitable in explaining the faith,” she said. “He can answer any question without ever taking offense, and I asked a lot of questions, but he wanted to give of his time and knowledge. He has incredible depth. Anything I asked he could answer in depth and helped me to see Jesus Christ, not just learning it with my head (but also) with my heart. (It was) by his example, by his work, teaching me about the lives of the saints. I did a Bible study with him on St. Teresa of Avila, showing me the call to holiness is universal.”
She was particularly inspired by his love of the Eucharist which “shows forth in everything he does.” This led her to discover the spiritual nourishment of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.
The slender 60-year-old Deacon Nguyen also glowed as he spoke softly about that gratitude for which he was motivated to give back in service to the church. “I’m so blessed and thankful for this day. During my life I’ve received so many blessings from God. This is time to pay back. I’ve got a chance to serve God’s people more effectively.”
His daughter Tami Hoang admires that spirit of servant leadership. “He’s just an awesome person. He’s a humble guy and always willing to help. He’s always been that way as a father and in the church community as well as in public service.”
Deacon Nguyen was completing an internship to become an attorney in Saigon when the communists overtook it and he and his family escaped to the United States in 1975. In Georgia he was assisted in resettlement by St. John the Evangelist Church in Hapeville.
“We felt very, very blessed when we first came to America. We were received and welcomed with open hearts, which gave us confidence. … I feel if you have ability you can advance in this country. Nobody holds you back. … I’m so grateful for America; it gave me a chance to move up,” he said. “God will guide me in His will, and I strongly believe I can do my job to help my people to understand and recognize God and do His work.”
Father Richard Morrow was pastor at St. John’s in Hapeville when he arrived and he recalled how the parish helped him to find a home, furniture and to get a custodial job. Within a few months he had begun taking night classes and went on to learn computer programming. He later got a job cleaning for Delta and then was promoted, eventually becoming a supervisor in customer service. After his two children graduated from college, he took early retirement so he could serve as a deacon at Our Lady of Vietnam Church in Riverdale.
Father Morrow, who wrote a recommendation for his first job, recalled his hard work and very strong faith in those difficult days.
“He’s really popular among the Vietnamese people, Buddhist as well as Catholic. He was president of the first Vietnamese association in Atlanta. He’s got good leadership qualities,” said Father Morrow. “He’s a humble man. As an employee of Delta he was in the kind of position where he was always being of service to people and, of course, that’s what the diaconate is all about.”
Deacon Orellana, who will serve with Deacon Neslin at St. Mary’s in Rome, said that his father asked him when he was 12 if he wanted to be a priest, and he said no. But the suggestion stayed with him and in 2000 a sister at St. Mary’s asked him if he’d consider becoming a deacon. He struggled with the decision, having a wife and young daughter.
“But Jesus Christ helps us. … I have a lot of experience of helping people in the parish. I feel good,” he said, in between greeting well-wishers. “In the parish there is only one priest for both (Hispanic and Anglo) congregations and after today I’ll help full time in the parish.”
Nancy McDermott reported that her husband “had almost gone into the priesthood out of high school and ended up in the Air Force. He just always had that calling and it finally caught up with him.” He went to a diaconate information session and “that was that.”
Their friend Florence Cain added that Deacon McDermott “really is so busy because he’s there for you, there for everyone, and he is so full of love for the Lord. This is really him, being a deacon, and his wife is just as sweet and kind.”
Deacon McDermott, 61, said deacons at Holy Family Church in Marietta inspired him. “The Holy Spirit came from that point and planted the seed. As time went on it got stronger and stronger, and I got a lot of support.” He’s grateful to have enough security with his career that he is able to serve at St. Vincent de Paul Church, Dallas, while being a father and grandfather. He’s eager to preach God’s word and to visit the sick and hopes to become involved in ministry to engaged and married couples and divorced Catholics.
“I feel it’s so important with the divorce rate as high as it is, (to do) whatever we can do—from marriage preparation, to working with mentoring with people having troubles, to (ministering to) divorced and separated, making sure they know they are always welcome in the church. There’s misunderstanding,” he said. “We don’t talk enough about the loving nature of God.”
Robert Gotshall, the 13-year-old son of Deacon Gotschall, gave quiet approval of his dad’s ordination. “He’s taught RCIA for a few years, and I think he does a really good job with that, and he likes being up there on the altar and serving Jesus.”
The younger Gotschall is an acolyte and finds his father to be encouraging and “a good source of information” about his faith and altar service at St. Andrew’s Church, Roswell. “I really look up to him. He’s pretty good about answering my questions about my faith,” said the youth, with a studious air in his grey suit and tie.
In the next pew Deacon Gotschall’s mother, Iris, added to the praise.
“This is one of the proudest moments of my life. He’s a wonderful son,” she said.
She said her son has always had a pleasant, helpful disposition and believes that his grandfather, who was a Methodist minister, had a positive influence on him. “I’ve been ill, and he’s just put himself out for me and anybody else he sees who needs help. He’s always one of the first ones (to help) and even as a youngster he was like that.”
Father Morrow was grateful to see Deacon Gotschall, Deacon Nguyen and so many other men stand tall and answer the call to join the priests in ordained ministry to the church, and recalled from his decades as a pastor their vital role.
“I really believe in these deacons. They are really gifted, and in a certain sense it gives us a one-two punch because they are in married life raising children,” he said.
Deacon biography photographs were taken by Deacon Ken Melvin.