Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Two long-time deacons scale back on parish ministry for ‘semi-retirement’

Story and photos by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the June 12, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

Two members of the Spokane Diocese’s deacon community are retiring at the end of this month – or, perhaps more accurately, semi-retiring.

Deacon Dick Malone, a member of the first class of deacons to be ordained by the late Bishop Bernard Topel in 1978, has cut back duties in his home parish of St. Mary in Spokane Valley.

Deacon J. Andrew Phelps, who was ordained in 1980, is also cutting back service at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes. Deacon Phelps has served at the cathedral since his ordination.

Deacon Malone (left) could be given at least partial credit for getting the deacon formation program started in the Spokane Diocese. He had read an article “out of Rome” that talked about restoring the diaconate as a separate ministry. This was after the Second Vatican Council and Deacon Malone was very interested. “It seemed something was missing in my life, but I didn’t know what it was.

“I knew Bishop Topel,” Deacon Malone said, “and I asked him about it. He didn’t know much and told me to contact (Jesuit) Father Armand Nigro. He didn’t know much about it either.”

The deacon continued to “stay in touch” with the bishop regarding his request. “I never let it go. In 1975 Father Mike Savelesky was director of deacons and finally a formation program was put together.” Deacon Malone was a member of that first group. Of the 21 men who began deacon formation, 17 were ordained in August 1978. An 18th man was ordained a year later. The group will note 25 years of service to the diocese this summer.

“We were all assigned to our home parishes,” Deacon Malone said. “But the bishop also gave most of us additional duties.”

Deacon Malone was named director of continuing education for the deacons, “a big job” which he did for 10 years. Later Deacon Malone became the diocesan chaplain for Scouting, another duty he had “for several years.”

In the beginning the deacons were not given the “faculties to preach,” Deacon Malone said. But, “after a year or so, Bishop Topel started a class for those interested in preaching. We met on Saturday mornings for several months.”

Not too long after Bishop Lawrence Welsh came to the diocese, said Deacon Malone, Rome granted preaching faculties to the deacons. After that, “preaching classes were incorporated into the deacon formation program.” He commented on how the deacon formation program has changed in the past 25 years. “We spent more time in the classroom than they do now,” he said.

Deacon Malone has done all the ministries that deacons do: baptisms, weddings, funerals, Eucharistic services. He especially loved the baptisms and figures he has done “well over 1,000.”

“When I first did them,” he said, “I would explain what was happening as I went along. I did it to help me remember what I was supposed to be doing.” His method turned out to be a blessing. A grandfather at one of his early baptisms commented on how much he had learned from the deacon’s explanations.

Plus, said Deacon Malone, “I learned it was also a way to catechize and bring people back into the church.” The baptisms have been one of his “biggest joys.”

As the years have passed, he said he has now done weddings for some of the people he baptized. “That’s been great, too,” he said.

Deacon Malone and his wife, Joan, plan to travel more and hope to spend the winter months in a warmer climate. Currently he is driving to Colville the first weekend of the month to help Father Bob McNeese in parish work there, as well as the parishes in Kettle Falls and Northport. The deacon retired from his work as a certified public accountant “eight or nine years ago,” he said.

Deacon Malone will help out as needed but, he said, “I want to keep my schedule flexible.”

As to being a deacon, “I’ve never helped someone without getting a bigger blessing in return.”

Deacon Phelps (right) is a retired surgeon whose career brought him West. He grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where he went to school and began his surgical practice. He spent a number of years in Miles City, Mont., in the Veterans Administration medical system. In 1975 he took the post of staff surgeon at the VA Hospital in Spokane and retired from there in 1982.

He could see retirement from his surgeon’s role in the not-too-distant future when he made inquiries about the deacon program. “I’m glad I did.” He said he felt “led to continue the idea of helping” in his life.

Deacon Phelps was a member of the second group of men to be ordained deacons. They were ordained in 1980. “I was assigned to the cathedral,” he said, “and have remained there ever since.”

While his focus as a deacon was “primarily liturgical, including preaching,” he also had other ministries. He assisted with marriage and baptismal preparations and also assisted with annulments.

The Cathedral parish has a large segment of retired people. Deacon Phelps said he has done more funerals than weddings. The Cathedral also serves a traveling population of homeless people and Deacon Phelps assists with them as needed. “It was just the general practice (of being a deacon); I did whatever was asked.”

One of his other places of service was the St. Vincent de Paul Society, where he served as secretary.

Like his St. Mary counterpart, Deacon Phelps wants to cut back on his service. He doesn’t have an official retirement date, but is looking at the end of June. “It’s time for me to retire,” he said. “I’m away from home a lot, and I want to spend more time with my wife and family.” With just the hint of a smile, Deacon Phelps told how he married his “favorite surgical nurse,” Charlotte by name, but better known as Chuckie.

In his ministry, Deacon Phelps said he has grown in his spirituality, “in developing greater patience and making a greater effort to understand human nature. At the same time, I hope I helped others by doing that. I hope that’s been of some value.”

Deacon Phelps said that men considering a vocation to the diaconate should make sure their wives “are supportive. There are a lot of demands.”

The demands of the diaconate are an important issue that the two deacons touched on. Both men stressed “learning how to balance” the deacon’s call to service with family life. Deacon Malone said a man is a deacon 24 hours a day, and it’s important “to take care of yourself.”

Soon these two men who have given nearly 50 total years of service to their church will join the ranks of the retired, leaving their ministries to those coming after them. Both agree that their ministry was greatly rewarding. In Deacon Malone’s words: “If I had it to do over, I would do it all again.”

There are presently two deacon formation classes in the diocese: one in Spokane with nine men, which is in its second year, and a second in the Pasco area, with eight men, that started last fall. For more information, contact Father Mike Kwiatkowski, Director of Deacon Formation, at (509) 466-4991 in Colbert.


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