By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 21, 2018
DAWSONVILLE—Joe Anzalone’s shadow for nearly 20 years rarely crossed the threshold of a church.
“If that is what it means to be Catholic, I’m out of here,” he said, remembering the hypocrisy of a prominent member of his family’s church in upstate New York. As a teen, he walked away from the church.
But since 1987, he has served as a permanent deacon.
“There was never an aha moment. It was, ‘There is where I am supposed to be and doing what I am supposed to do,’” he said.
The fifth of 11 children, Deacon Anzalone grew up surrounded by the Italian community in Buffalo, New York. His mother was a homemaker; his father worked as a truck driver. He could count on his father to get the family to church, but the elder Anzalone would never attend himself.
“I just remember being there in the pews and watching the old Italian ladies praying the rosary,” he said.
With a salt-and-pepper beard and a dark button-down Oxford shirt, Deacon Anzalone talked about his ministry over a cup of coffee at a Roswell diner, skipping lunch after a breakfast ministry meeting. And later that night, he’d be leading a Bible study.
His return to the church came after prodding by his brother and multiple phone calls to St. Philip Benizi Church, Jonesboro, which his wife and kids attended, but he had nothing to do with. When he lost his job in the economic slump in 1974, he felt a desire to join others in prayer. He showed up at the church on the wrong day for his prayer meeting. However, another group was gathering and invited him to sit in. That moment changed his faith life.
The group meeting led to an emotional Cursillo retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, in Conyers, where tears ran down his face. He overcame his fear of confession. Said the deacon, “It felt like a 500-pound weight that was lifted off.”
The retreat was a springboard as he became active in the parish, from reading scripture at Mass to visiting the sick. His name came up as a candidate for deacon. The training took place during three years.
The years of service have given him quiet moments of affirmation. Knowing his own history, Deacon Anzalone has been drawn to seek out men to revive their faith. He likes to meet young families preparing for baptisms. It’s his chance to talk with new fathers, at a moment they are settling into different roles. The deacon sees it as a chance to “get inside his head and heart.”
The deacon wants to ensure men are given the space to share faith, something men can be notoriously resistant to do. Groups of men can slide into becoming social clubs, so he sees part of his role is to make sure spirituality isn’t ignored. He is leading a Bible study now, geared toward men, reflecting on the life of an Army chaplain who died as a POW in the Korean War, Father Emil Kapaun. He has been declared a Servant of God and in 2013, posthumously received the Medal of Honor.
“They don’t talk about personal stuff, not very much about personal faith. If we aren’t sharing our faith, we are in the wrong place,” he said.
He and his wife, Judy, have four adult children. He worked as a salesman during his career. He and his family lived in the southern suburbs for more than 40 years, attending St. Philip Benizi Church. Five years ago, they moved to the opposite side of Atlanta, to Cumming. He now assists at Christ the Redeemer Church, Dawsonville.
Deacon Anzalone admits the ministry came at a price. In his mid-40s at his ordination, he said the training and the ministry took him away from time with his children. In fact, he said he’d encourage any man discerning to serve to focus on his vocation as a father and husband first.
By being a family man and a working man, a permanent deacon brings insights and experiences that connect with parishioners drawing upon their own experiences of losing a job, failing a child or balancing family needs and career. After all these years, he feels himself not up to the task, but still relentlessly drawn to it.
“I’d rather play golf,” he said. “But there’s something in me that says ‘golf is not what you were made for.’ Am I doing what God expects of me?”