Program for the first group of permanent deacons ordained for the archdiocese focuses on service.
Program for the first group of permanent deacons ordained for the archdiocese focuses on service.

Busloads of parishioners from as far as Grants Pass and Lebanon filled St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for the ordination. Sitting in the front row were the candidates — plus their wives and kids.

The first large ordination of permanent deacons for the Catholic Church in western Oregon took place on Nov. 5, 1993. Then-Archbishop William Levada laid his hands on the heads of Bob Chapin, Bob Little, José Mendez, Ed Morin, Francis Potts, John Ries and Richard Triska. They were sent out to serve as bridges between the laity and the church.

Chapin, 74, says 25 years as a deacon have humbled him. Like most military pilots, getting taken down a notch or two has been good for him, he explains.

He flew helicopters for the Army and learned about the diaconate while stationed in Hawaii, where permanent deacons were abundant after the Second Vatican Council. He retired from active duty and became pastoral associate at St. Anne Parish in Grants Pass. Now, Chapin is semi-retired, helping with funerals at the same parish, a task in which he finds great meaning.  

Among his favorite ministries was teaching those who were becoming Catholic. “Nothing helps you learn your faith better than trying to explain it to someone,” Chapin says. He also was business manager at the mission in Rogue River. 

He appreciates the diaconate because of its closeness to the laity.

He and Kathleen have been married since 1984. Is a deacon’s life hard on marriage and family? “It’s doable, but the wife really has to go along with it,” Chapin says.

Kathleen Chapin is all in. She was awestruck at the ordination 25 years ago, even while in the cry room with the children. She sees her life of service with her husband as a response to God’s love. She has taught children’s faith formation, among other ministries.

“My advice to deacon wives is to be open to the Holy Spirit,” Kathleen says. “It’s pretty awesome.”

Little, 65, had been working at St. Pius X Parish in Northwest Portland since 1984. He’s still there after 34 years. He explains that his relationship with wife Jennie (they have been married for 41 years) is primary, along with their daughter and grandchildren, all of whom attended, attend or will attend St. Pius X School.

But the diaconate also brought him into an important relationship with the people of the large suburban parish. He’s served as youth minister, a teacher for Catholics-to-be, visitor to the homebound and pastoral associate. He takes on many miscellaneous duties and as a deacon has presided at baptisms, funerals and weddings. He officiated at his daughter’s marriage rite. 

“I have just loved it,” Little says. “I get a lot of reward from being able to minister to people. I see people being ignited on fire for God. Those are special moments. I am very blessed.”

He recalls ordination night vividly, especially lying face down on the floor in a gesture of humble prayer. He can feel the heft of the book of Scriptures Archbishop Levada handed over to him. 

Mendez, 73, was longtime Hispanic ministry director at massive St. Joseph Parish in Salem. Tending more than 1,000 families, his phone rang constantly. He prepared families for baptisms, reconciliation, first Communion, confirmation, marriage and funerals. He conducted Bible studies and helped with Mass in prisons. He visited youth detention centers and the state mental hospital. He brought Communion to the sick.

“Not many priests spoke Spanish at that time,” Mendez recalls, laughing. “It was a lot of work.”

Before entering ministry, he worked on farms and for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He and his wife Maria have four children and are grandparents. He now assists at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Salem.

His most poignant moments include baptisms and funerals.

Francis Potts, 67, served for decades at St. Mary Parish in Corvallis, where he started as youth minister in 1989. A Chicago native, he went through Dominican formation and worked as a pastoral counselor at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene. He and wife Barbara had four children.

Msgr. Richard Huneger was put in charge of the new deacon program and he explored best practices from dioceses around the nation. The bar was set high. All the men had master’s degrees or the equivalent and had worked in the church for a decade or more. Still, they attended several years of theological training, working on weekends.

“You have to be pastoral,” Potts recalls Msgr. Huneger telling the men. The priest often reminded them that they were called to holiness within family life.

Potts knows life is a process and that deacons are always learning. “But we’ve got some really really good men out there,” he says.

Triska, 86, was a longtime justice of the peace in addition to serving as a deacon at St. Edward Parish in Lebanon. He went through formation with the Servites before marrying Barbara. The two had four children and he became a social worker. Triska decided to finish theological studies at Mount Angel Seminary and there met transitional deacons, men who were to be ordained priests. The theology of the servant deacon appealed to him. 

“It was a long process, but I never had any doubts about it,” he says. 

At St. Edward, he was chairman of the finance committee, an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, a lector, director of formation for incoming Catholics and chairman of the finance committee. After ordination, he tended the parish when there was a gap between pastors.

Triska says he has been fortunate to become a deacon because it enabled him to do what all Christians are asked to do: love God and love neighbor. “It has been a great asset to my own spiritual life,” he explains. “It brings you into deeper contact with the Holy Spirit.”

Triska predicts the diaconate will continue to evolve to meet the needs of the church.

Deacon Brian Diehm, current director of the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Portland, says the class of 1993 is full of good models for a ministry meant to go out into the world to bring people back to the sacraments.

“They were mentors for us even if they didn’t know it,” Diehm says. “They came in with no one knowing quite what the diaconate is. They set it up. They modeled for us by who they were, by their giving natures.”

Two of the men in that historic 1993 class have died. Morin was a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Southwest Portland. Ries served at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and ran the archdiocese’s diaconate office.