By RENEE WEBB
While the Catholic Church in the United States is marking its 50th anniversary of permission granted to initiate permanent deacon programs, the Diocese of Sioux City officially began its program 40 years ago.
Father Roger Linnan, a retired priest of the diocese, recalled he had mixed feelings when Bishop Frank Greteman asked him to be the first director of the permanent diaconate program.
“When Bishop Greteman asked me, I said, ‘I know that some dioceses are going ahead with this, but I am more interested in developing the ministry of lay people than adding another group of clergy,’” the priest recalled.
Visits to deacon programs in Omaha and Dubuque, Father Linnan said, convinced him there were things being done by deacons that were very important.
Father Linnan was named director of the permanent diaconate for the Diocese of Sioux City in 1977 and set about the work of developing a program with the help of a core advisory group made up of Father Dale George, theology professor at Briar Cliff College in Sioux City; Father Bob Condon, who was head of the psychology department at Briar Cliff; Sister Michaela Galles and Sister Ruth Agnes Ahlers, theology professors at Briar Cliff, along with diocesan priests Msgr. Louis Kollasch and Father Timothy Schott.
Before the diocese had a program, he explained diocesan parishioners William Berger and John Heffernan were granted permission from Bishop Greteman to do their first two years of training in the Archdiocese of Omaha. They then spent time working in the chancery and at Briar Cliff before being ordained as permanent deacons on Dec. 10, 1977.
“In January of 1978 we started a program here,” said Father Linnan, who noted the advisory group helped to shape the three-year program with ideas from Dubuque and Omaha and many from the group helped teach the classes.
He pointed out that wives of the deacon candidates also attended the classes because the ministry affected their lives, too. The director would inform the candidates that while “you may have a vocation to the diaconate, it doesn’t cancel out your first vocation and most important vocation” of marriage, as most of the candidates were married with families.
In addition to the classes, Father Linnan said the candidates and their wives met monthly for prayer and support. During one of those gatherings in Algona, held in the house of then Deacon Armand Bertrand, the group was forced to the basement when a tornado warning siren went off. The twister took off a portion of the house’s roof.
“That was an interesting support group meeting,” he quipped.
Father Linnan explained the deacons receive their direction for ministry from the bishop rather than the pastors and priests. This helps to ensure they are not asked to do things that interfere with their family and professional lives.
The first class of men fully trained in the diocese was ordained in 1981.
The director acknowledged there were some mistakes made early on in the way formation, selection of candidates and assignments were approached. Plus, he added, there was some hesitation on the part of priests and the people about the diaconate.
It didn’t take long for Father Linnan and others to see fruits of this vocation, however, as many of the deacons delved into various ministries.
“Right away, John Heffernan started hospital ministry and he went to St. Luke’s everyday for 30-some years,” recalled Father Linnan, who served as the director of the diaconate program until 1991. “Bill Berger was going to Mercy Hospital on a regular basis too; he had a special outreach to people who had heart problems because he had open heart surgery.”
Other deacons such as Joe Maher, the late editor of The Globe, and Jeff Gallagher made visits to the South Dakota Penitentiary.
“Those were things that were not being done,” Father Linnan said.
One of the deacons, Deacon Tom Lang, became the director of the diaconate for the Archdiocese of Dubuque. Another of the early deacons, Bob Lenz, went on to serve at the diocesan level as an outreach worker to retired priests.
While several deacons from his time as director are now deceased or have moved, some continue to live and serve in the diocese: Deacons Gallagher, Lenz, Mike Hand, Fred Karpuk, LeRoy Rupp, Jim Sands, Joe Straub (retired), Gerald Streit (retired) and Phil Doocy (retired).
“Their faith really supported my faith. I was really encouraged by the kind of Catholic Christian men they were,” Father Linnan said.