By PAM HENRY, Special To The Bulletin | Published November 16, 2006
When a parish community is first established, there are always certain individuals who help to get the church off the ground. In many ways these individuals become the heart and soul of that parish.
At St. John the Evangelist Church in Hapeville, Deacon Richard Beckman is such an individual. The countless hours he has given to the parish in so many ways have helped St. John’s grow into the faith community it has become.
A member of the parish for over 50 years, he has served extraordinarily generously, first as a layman and then as a permanent deacon, retiring this year at the age of 80.
His love of liturgy is evident in the many parish ministries he helped to establish and support. As a layman, he was instrumental in founding the parish liturgical ministries, training individuals to serve, and scheduling them for all of the weekend Masses. He set up guidelines for altar servers, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, lectors, sacristans and ushers.
As the parish grew, he, first individually and then with others, recruited ministers. He was responsible for their training and, over the last 40 years, has maintained the schedule for weekend liturgies and holy days. He organized the data system that keeps track of the extraordinary ministers of holy Communion. He monitored their individual terms and scheduled their retraining every three years. He recruited those who now train the ministers.
Deacon Beckman’s dedication to the Blessed Mother is witnessed to each week in the spiritual works of the parish’s two Legion of Mary presidiums. He established the Legion of Mary at St. John’s, starting with two people, himself and Anna Knight. The first meetings were held with Deacon Beckman praying in English and Anna in French, since she spoke no English. The presidiums evolved from three groups serving St. John’s to the present Our Lady of the Rosary, which meets on Mondays, and Our Lady of Hope, which meets on Tuesday mornings. Deacon Beckman was the spiritual director for both, leading “Mary’s Army” on their spiritual works of mercy. He scheduled Legion members to visit hospitals, nursing homes, and the homes of people too sick to come to Mass. Legion members take Mary and her love for her Son to the people as they bring Communion, pray with them, distribute literature of the Catholic faith and minister to their spiritual needs.
When the parish office moved from the rectory to the convent, he purchased the statue of Mary standing in the garden and planted flowers and roses in honor of the Blessed Mother. For many years, Richard and Mary Panzarella maintained the garden. Many knew of the collection of various statues of Mary that Deacon Beckman kept in his office at the parish center. Each statue represents an aspect of Mary’s life and his love and devotion for her.
Deacon Beckman’s love of the written word has been a constant gift to the parish. He served as city editor of the Columbus newspaper while attending St. John’s on the weekend. Later, when he returned to Atlanta to serve as special assistant on the President’s U.S. Study Commission of Land and Water Resources, he moved to the parish full time. Using his gift for writing, in 1972 he established The Evangelist, a monthly newsletter delivered to present and former members. Through The Evangelist, people were kept abreast of the news of the parish, starting with reports from the parish council, liturgy committee, St. John School and various organizations. Parishioners knew where all their former priests, sisters and members had relocated and what was happening in their lives. They were given a biography of each new priest assigned to the parish, so no one ever came to them a stranger. The Evangelist let them know of births, graduations, baptisms, marriages, special job opportunities, and deaths of those they knew as family. All monthly schedules and meetings were published. As the church grew, changes in liturgy were explained, so all had knowledge of what was happening. The editorials gave insight into so many things. Through them parishioners learned, in depth, of the works of so many who served the parish. Deacon Beckman shared with them the unknown gifts of others while hiding the many things he did for the church.
He acted as the historian for St. John’s. When the parish celebrated its 25th anniversary and later its 50th, parishioners went to him for information as to the activities throughout the years. At retirement, he left copies of all of the newsletters to the school so the parish history will be here for years to come. His one regret was that he could not find someone to continue the publication of The Evangelist when time constraints did not allow him to continue as editor.
Deacon Beckman’s organizational skills are unsurpassed. He holds the record for attending more parish council meetings than anyone in the history of St. John’s. He kept records of elections, notifying the council as to who was up for election and appointment, who was eligible for reelection or reappointment, and whose terms had expired. Many times during a meeting he would offer insight into the Constitution of both the parish council and liturgy committee.
As the founder and first chairman of the liturgy board, he recruited and trained members in all aspects of liturgy, including penance services and special liturgies. He was responsible for ordering the wine and altar bread, candles, ashes, oils, palms, and booklets for Mass, Stations of the Cross and Holy Week. He recruited and trained readers for special liturgies. He set the standards for parish sacristans, the men and women responsible for setting up before Mass.
On more than one occasion, a pastor reassigned to another parish would tell the incoming pastor that if he had any questions all he needed to do was ask Deacon Beckman. He served each pastor with humility and treated all with dignity. He came as a volunteer to the parish and later, when he retired, came to work full time for St. John’s without pay.
Deacon Beckman holds the distinction of being the only volunteer to have an office at the parish center. Later he started to receive a small stipend when making visits as a deacon. Ordained in 1987, he served St. John’s full time until he retired. He also holds the record for retiring from the parish more times than anyone else. The school gave him a retirement party in 1991 to wish him well, only to find out that, though he wanted to quit, he first had to find his replacement. He would cut down on hours only to find that when a new pastor arrived his hours would then increase until the new pastor learned the ropes. He would then cut down on hours until that pastor left and the cycle began again.
Father Ray Horan was once asked how many men it would take to replace Deacon Beckman. Father replied “Richard? It would take 10 men, no make that 15 men, to replace Richard.” Later when Deacon Beckman’s age and failing eyesight prevented him from performing many duties, he started training individuals to take over some of his responsibilities. He has surpassed the number of 15 people it would take to complete his duties, with many jobs not yet filled.
On Friday, May 12, St. John the Evangelist Church celebrated Deacon Beckman’s 80th birthday along with a farewell Mass in his honor. Concelebrating the Mass with the present pastor, Father Ed Thein, were former pastors and priests who have served in the parish over the years, including Father Steven Yander, Father Michael Woods, Father Anthony Curran, Father John Adamski and Msgr. Henry Gracz.
Father Thein spoke of the dedication and service Deacon Beckman gave to the parish over the last 54 years. At the end of the Mass, Deacon Hank Akers along with the visiting priests were invited to share with those present their memories of working with Deacon Beckman over the years. Afterward there was a covered dish dinner attended by over 200 people.
Recently, in an interview, Father Thein said that one quality among many he would highlight in Deacon Beckman is “the consistent striving for excellence in all he did.”
Father Thein came to the parish as the Redemptorist order returned pastoral care to the archdiocese and, as he did for pastors over the decades, Deacon Beckman helped him come to know the parish.
“He wanted to make sure I had the best transition possible and he was here to help me,” Father Thein said. “I was deeply grateful for his willingness to help me. … I found him to be very much a gentleman who strove for excellence in that way.”
Father Thein added, “He is a man of prayerfulness. … He has been the transition team for every pastor who has served here. … He has been the lynchpin for the parish in a lot of dimensions.”
On Sunday, June 11, St. John the Evangelist honored Deacon Beckman by dedicating the newly built “Our Lady Queen of Peace Grotto” in honor of his many years of service to the parish. Andrew Nemchik, an alumnus of St. John the Evangelist School, chose as his Eagle Scout project the design and construction of this grotto to the Blessed Mother. Geno Finn, another former student of St. John’s, is working on the second phase of the project that will include a water feature and walking rosary.
Individuals such as Richard Beckman are unique and truly irreplaceable. They are a rare breed—a treasure. Deacon Beckman has left an indelible mark on the parish that is St. John the Evangelist with the selfless sharing of his considerable gifts. He has touched and shaped nearly every aspect of the fabric of this parish’s life. We are immensely grateful for the gift he has been to us. It’s hard to imagine that we will ever see his like again.
Pam Henry, a parishioner of St. John the Evangelist Church in Hapeville, has known Deacon Richard Beckman for 40 years. Through his influence, she is now chairman of the building and grounds and liturgy committees. She is also on the staff of St. John the Evangelist School where she is in charge of support services.