Permanent diaconate a lasting legacy of Bishop Tafoya

By Katie Chrisman
When Bishop Tafoya chose to establish the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Pueblo in the late 1990s, it was met with both excitement and fear.

There were already a handful of deacons serving in the diocese; those who were ordained elsewhere in the country and now resided in the diocese. Yet, even with some familiarity with deacons, many other priests and parishioners across the diocese were uneasy about the idea of the diaconate and how it might affect the priesthood.

“Because the diaconate was new in the diocese, in the beginning it was difficult for the Bishop and some priests to enter into the process and see it as separate from the priesthood, yet still a holy service to the people,” said Deacon Don Lamb, now retired.

Still others were troubled by the pressing priest shortage and knew something needed to be done. Then Father David Ricken, now bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisc. said at the time in the Chronicle of Catholic Life, “The people in the parishes were requesting deacons. People are very worried about not having a priest and the shortage of priests. They want some type of sacramental presence, and feel that having deacons would mitigate the lack of a priest.” 

The first class of deacons, 11 men ordained in the Jubilee year 2000, faced an unknown path when they were accepted to the diaconate. Those first men ordained were Don Lamb, Mike LaConte, John Luginbull, Steve Lumbert, Gary Newport, Rick Oreskey, Ed Riccillo, Toby Romero, Jacob Shafer, Doug VanHouten and Henry Wertin.

During formation, nine men and their wives traveled to Denver for coursework, while two in the Durango area travelled to Gallup. It was the first class that charted the way for deacon classes in the future.

Now, according to Deacon Dan Leetch, director of permanent deacons, the Diocese of Pueblo has 52 deacons. Of those five are retired. Seven additional men are in formation with an expected ordination in 2021.

Deacon Steve Lumbert, parish life administrator at St. Anne in Pueblo talked about how challenging it was to be in that first class. “We did not have a discernment year. We went right into it,” Deacon Lumbert said. “We were all dedicated to our desire and our call.”

Originally the formation was to last five years, but a personnel change in Denver as well as the release of the basic norms for diaconate formation cut the first class’ deacon formation to just four years. They didn’t just drop the coursework for year five, but rather added it to their fourth year coursework, as well as an additional philosophy course.

“It was humbling to know Bishop Tafoya put his trust and hopes in us. It made me do lots of praying and studying as it was many years since I had been in a classroom with such a demanding curriculum,” said Deacon John Luginbull, who serves at St. Mary in Walsenburg. He continued, “It was exciting to be in the first class, but also challenging, as how we did would probably affect whether there would be future classes. “

Once ordained on August 4, 2000, the deacons went out to serve in parishes across the diocese. They encountered mixed reactions from their pastors and parishioners. “We were under great scrutiny,” said Deacon Mike LaConte, parish life administrator at Sacred Heart in Avondale.

“I remain grateful to Bishop Tafoya for initiating diaconal ministry in our diocese because he did so in the face of significant resistance,” said Deacon Doug VanHouton, who serves at St. Joseph in Grand Junction.

Deacon Lumbert also faced the fearfulness of the unknown of the diaconate at his parish. “It took me eight months to win over my parish,” he said. For him, that was done “by caring for the people. It made a big difference.”

Those interviewed agree that the creation of the diaconate helped take some of the burden off the already taxed priests in the diocese.

“It seems to me that when the parish priests lean on others including not only deacons but also staff and volunteers, they have more time for the administration of sacramental life to the parish,” said Deacon VanHouton. “A case in point at my parish is their ample availability for the sacrament of reconciliation and counseling.”

The creation of the permanent diaconate stands as one of Bishop Tafoya’s lasting legacies in the diocese, one that the first class says continues to impact the diocese to this day.

“The positive impact started out small and continues to grow as a result of our bishop’s vision for what we can accomplish together as two-fold clergy,” said Deacon VanHouten.  Deacon Lamb adds, “It has renewed our understanding and faith that we are all called in our own way by our baptism to serve the people of God.”

Bishop Tafoya had the wisdom to see how the creation of the diaconate in the diocese could help both spiritually and practically. Simply put: “It’s been a good investment for the diocese,” said Deacon LaConte.