December 18, 2014
Saying “yes” to a call for a vocation changes one’s life. It often starts as an inner voice, sometimes gentle, sometimes loud and clear. The Diocese of Bismarck is blessed with many men who have answered this call to be deacons. They make sacrifices to themselves and their families, but they say it’s the greatest sacrifice they could ever offer.
After the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Pope Paul VI re-instituted the diaconate order as a permanent office in the Church. This order, intended chiefly for married men who desire to serve the Church in a greater capacity, is focused on aiding priests in their duties at a parish, serving the poor, and assisting during liturgical celebrations.
From 1981 to 1984, the Diocese of Bismarck ordained its first three classes of permanent deacons, and is blessed to have four of these men still living and working in it today. Lynn Clancy, Bob Olson, Ralph Stockert, and Rex McDowall have each been members of the permanent diaconate for 30 or more years, and have been shining examples of humility and service to the faithful of the diocese.
Lynn Clancy was one of the first men in the diocese ordained to the permanent diaconate. When he and his family moved to Bismarck from Valley City in 1978, he was already hearing the call to the diaconate through friends and family. Soon after he had arrived, he joined what was to become the first class of Bismarck men ordained to the diaconate. He spent the majority of his diaconate at Corpus Christi Church in Bismarck, where he and his wife Janice, along with their two children, were involved in the day-to-day ministry of the parish. “My wife was by my side the whole time,” Clancy states, “coordinating all kinds of events and programs. It was really a team effort.”
Clancy singles out his responsibility in assisting with baptisms as one of the great joys of his ministry. “I baptized over a thousand people,” he remembers. “Most of them babies – some adults.” The “marvelous experiences” he had preparing parents for the initiation of their children into the Church is one that he knows he won’t soon forget. “I also had a real dedication to Catholic social teaching,” he recalls, and expresses that he concentrated his focus on issues of importance to the Catholic community as a whole in his homilies and outreach.
Asked about the struggles he endured during his time as a deacon, Clancy views the matter with a charitable heart. “There were challenges, of course, but many of those just came from being under scrutiny. The permanent diaconate was a new thing for all of us, and it wasn’t something people got used to right away.” Indeed, he says, any challenges paled in comparison to the blessings he received through his ministry. “It was a privilege to be able to provide leadership for so many people, to be looked at as someone they could trust,” Clancy says. “The entire experience has been just wonderful for both Janice and myself.”
Bob Olson, a classmate of Clancy’s, shares the honor of being in the first Bismarck class to be ordained after the permanent diaconate was restored. Following a path similar to his classmate’s, he moved from Grand Forks in 1977 and settled in Mandan with his wife Loretta and their two children. “We got started right away,” he says, recalling the time spent with Loretta as they learned about the ins and outs of baptism, marriage preparation, and other parish ministries together. Initially, Olson states, he served as the administrator for the church of St. Vincent de Paul in Crown Butte. “That was a little rocky at first,” he chuckles. “I didn’t have much financial background for all that bookkeeping, but after 14 years I think I got the hang of it.”
Now, Olson and his wife are members of St. Joseph parish in Mandan, where they were assigned after their time at St. Vincent de Paul. They have been active members of the community there through their leadership and example for nearly 15 years. “It’s been a huge gift to be a member of St. Joe’s,” Olson affirms.
Reflecting on his time as a deacon for the Diocese of Bismarck, Olson emphasizes the value of serving others. “Having the opportunity to be in the diaconate has been extremely beneficial to Loretta and me. It’s deepened our prayer life and opened us up to new experiences.” Finally, he says, it all comes back to being the hands and feet of Jesus. “We were so blessed to be doing Christ’s work in the diocese.”
On May 25 of this year, Ralph Stockert officially retired from active ministry; ordained in 1984, the date marked his 30-year anniversary as a permanent deacon. “My only claim to fame is that I was the first guy from Dickinson to be ordained,” Stockert says. “I was approached with the idea of joining from a few people, and I went for it.”
“I was ordained by Bishop Kinney at St. Wenceslaus,” he continues, “but I’ve been at St. Joseph’s for most of my time as a deacon.” He and his wife Anna Marie, in their ministry, volunteered to assist with a number of events, including marriage prep, baptisms, funerals, and communion services. The only hesitation Stockert felt was when it came to preaching. “I suppose I did have mixed emotions about standing up there and giving a sermon at first,” he admits. “It wasn’t something I was used to. But I did grow to enjoy it!”
The support of his wife and family has been instrumental in strengthening Stockert during his diaconate. “I have one daughter, one granddaughter, and one great-granddaughter, and they’ve all been nothing but encouraging,” he laughs. “Having my family by my side has been wonderful.”
Stockert and his wife have “greatly enjoyed” being in the diaconate. “It increased our faith immensely,” he notes, “and has been a wonderful way to serve the Church. I wouldn’t change a bit of it.”
Rex McDowall, currently serving at the Church of Corpus Christi in Bismarck, was ordained alongside Ralph Stockert in 1984. Part of his first assignment consisted of a managerial role overseeing the Catholic cemetery at St. Mary’s, but before long he was given a more traditional position at Corpus Christi.
With five children and a career as an account manager, the life of a deacon did not come without its challenges. “It was tough on occasion to juggle a full-time job, a family, and be involved in the church,” he says, “and I know that at times my family would have liked to have me home more. But the sacrifices are worth it.”
Part of the strength to offer up such sacrifices, McDowall says, came from the support of his wife. He and Joyce (who directs the Office of Family Ministry for the diocese) have worked closely with each other since day one. “We’ve shared my diaconate,” McDowall laughs. The couple has served as advisors, coordinators, and directors of a number of outreach programs, including marriage preparation and the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).
Asked to reflect on his ministry, McDowall offers an encouragement to those who may feel called to the diaconate. “I would just tell men to step forward if they feel the call, and to not be afraid,” he says. “It’s an incredibly rewarding life.”
These four men have offered their lives in service of the Church, and the Diocese of Bismarck thanks them for their sacrifices and wishes them peace and joy. The deacons, and their wives and families, are grateful for and humbled by the support and prayers of the members of the Diocese of Bismarck over the past 30 years. Their ministry has been a beautiful influence for decades and is one that will not soon be forgotten.