by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The ordination of the first cohort of permanent deacons in the history of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas was kind of like America’s early space program.
It hadn’t been done here before. The stakes were high, and failure would have been catastrophic for the program.
Did these pioneering men have “the right stuff”?
“Because we never had permanent deacons in the archdiocese before cohort one was ordained,” said Leon Suprenant, co-director of the archdiocesan office of the permanent diaconate, “people didn’t know that much about them.
“A lot of people hadn’t experienced permanent deacons on a regular basis and didn’t know what they were supposed to do.”
The historic first cohort (group) of 17 permanent deacons was ordained on April 9, 2011, by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood.
Ten years later, the answer is obvious: Yes, they did.
“Because we were buoyed by their success, witness and example, they’ve been instructive in helping us create a vision for our diaconate program, and they had a huge impact in the formation of subsequent cohorts,” said Suprenant.
Ten year later, 15 members of that first group are still in active ministry. On April 10, they gathered with their families at Savior Pastoral Center in Kansas City, Kansas, for a special blessing and 10th anniversary Mass celebrated by Archbishop Naumann.
Fittingly, the candidates of the fourth cohort, who were undergoing a study weekend, assisted during the liturgy as readers and acolytes. Since participation was limited due to COVID-19 restrictions, the liturgy was livestreamed for those who could not attend.
Also fittingly, they remembered and honored the man who designed and implemented the program for the first cohort, Msgr. Gary Applegate. Now living at Villa St. Francis in Olathe, he could not attend due to health considerations.
“Everyone in the permanent diaconate program, particularly the men in cohort one, owe a great deal to Msgr. Applegate in getting the program started here,” said Suprenant. “Not only was he the instrumental, pivotal player in the formation of cohort one, he also set up things so when I came in and began working with cohort two, there was something of a template in place.
“When he began cohort one, he was working from scratch. We had nothing. And he had many other responsibilities at the time, too. In spite of that, he was able to get started and we have some remarkable deacons who received their formation under his watchful eye. The archdiocese will always be grateful for his service.”
Today, the office of the permanent diaconate is headed by co-directors Suprenant and Father Gary Pennings, and by associate director Father Gregory Hammes.
Deacon George Karnaze, a member of the first cohort, said it has been “10 years of growth, knowledge, discernment and humility.”
“It’s been more than what I expected,” said Deacon Karnaze, who serves at Immaculate Conception Parish in Louisburg. “It has helped me grow within the faith, it’s helped me grow within the church, it’s helped me grow in the ministry of what Christ set forth when he sent the apostles out . . . in service to the people of God. I look forward to the next few years and working with my fellow deacons.”
Deacon Michael Hill, also of the first cohort, said the last 10 years have brought a “deeper, richer” prayer life and a deeper understanding of the complexities of the lives of others. It has become a part of his identity.
“You’re a deacon 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” said Deacon Hill, who serves at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Kansas City, Kansas. “It’s one of my favorite things I tell people who are seeking aspirancy. You’re always going to be a deacon. It leaves an indelible mark on you.
“That seems to, over the past 10 years, have animated my life. It allows me to be a guidepost along the way — what should I as a deacon do? So, in that way, it animates my character, preaching the word by the way I live.”
Since being ordained 10 years ago, his ministry has made him “a better deacon, a better husband and a better guy all around,” said Deacon Tom Mulvenon, a member of the first cohort. Since he retired, he’s been serving in full-time ministry at St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee.
“I think with ordination my character became more aligned with Christ the servant,” said Deacon Mulvenon. “The more a man exercises the office of deacon, the more he strengthens the character that is already there. It reinforces who you are at the get-go.”
Deacon Jim Lavin, who serves at Queen of the Holy Rosary Parish in Overland Park and as chaplain at Catholic Community Hospice, said the past 10 years have been “challenging, rewarding and humbling,” but he couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“I’ve learned to appreciate life’s little humiliations to keep my pride and ego in check,” said Deacon Lavin. “You get that as a deacon and I think it’s good, because it’s not about who we are but the ministry we do.”
“We are ordained to serve, not to be served,” he continued. “I’m always deferring to the pastor, the archbishop and the needs of the parishioners. If there’s one thing I would tell people in formation now, it’s awesome to be a deacon, but it’s not about you — and if you forget that, you will be shown that with little humiliations that you will learn to appreciate.”
The archdiocese now has more than 60 permanent deacons and, this fall, will begin the formation of the fifth cohort.
“With each new cohort, I get 20 new friends who are remarkable, generous, apostolic, Catholic men from a variety of backgrounds,” said Suprenant. “We have this growing community of men who do so much for the church, love the church and are willing to back up that love by committing their lives to this ministry.”