MANITOWOC — Being ordained a deacon was the furthest thing from Mark Knipp’s mind 16 years ago.
Simply living to see another day was all that mattered.
“There’s a lot I don’t remember about that very dark time in my life,” Knipp said, pausing for a while before continuing. “But I do remember one day very vividly — the day I made some arrangements and decided I was going to commit suicide.”
That day, he sat on the edge of a bed staring off into space, overwhelmed by a toxic mix of depression and anxiety.
“And that’s when my daughter (Erin, a young child at the time) came in and sat down next to me,” Deacon Knipp said. “She put her head on my shoulder and said, ‘Dad, it’ll be OK.’ She didn’t know how bad it was, but she had some sort of sense that I was troubled. That’s when I approached my wife (Lisa) and told her what was going on. For me, that was a turning point in my life. It was the start of my comeback. It started to bring me back to life in more ways than one.”
Fast forward to today, and the newly ordained Deacon Knipp, 47, said he’s unrecognizable — spiritually speaking — compared to the person he was back then. Now, he embraces a supportive network of family, friends and fellow parishioners, as well as a fulfilling vocation as the director of worship at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in his hometown of Manitowoc.
“Honestly, I don’t quite understand it to this day just how things worked out the way they did,” he said. “I look back on my life and I have lots of regrets … lots of regrets. Things I’d change in a heartbeat. But it’s my life, and you accept the good and the bad and the ugly, and you move on and become a better person. And that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Deacon Knipp had “a very Catholic, well-grounded upbringing.” His parents, Andrew, a Polish Catholic, and Sheron, a German Catholic, made sure they never missed a Mass or a holy day. Deacon Knipp was an altar server for about five years at Immaculate Conception of the BVM (where he also attended school), before it merged into St. Francis of Assisi. He graduated from Roncalli High School.
In his early 30s, Deacon Knipp drifted away from the church, culminating with that dark day sitting on the edge of the bed. Even after his daughter’s timely words of encouragement, he didn’t immediately return to church on a regular basis. That didn’t happen until about three years later, when another timely occurrence changed the course of his life.
One day, the church contacted Deacon Knipp’s wife, Lisa, and asked if their children were interested in becoming altar servers.
“I really didn’t want to go back to the church for the training session at that time. I was just going to stay home,” Deacon Knipp said. “As Lisa and the kids (Erin, Adam and Abby) were pulling out of the driveway, I went out and stopped them so I could go along. I don’t know why I did that. All of a sudden, I just felt like I wanted to go. Looking back, maybe there was some prompting of the Spirit.”
While at church that day, someone asked Deacon Knipp if he’d like to get involved in the parish, “and that really started my journey back to the Catholic Church.”
He started slowly, but surely.
“I am very shy by nature, so I wasn’t sure how I could help,” he said. “They said maybe I could be a lector. But that would mean getting up in front of people, and I wasn’t ready for that. Then they said maybe I could be a hospitality minister. Again, I’d be seen and I didn’t want that just yet. Then they said they had the perfect job — a behind-the-scenes job being a sacristan. I thought about it for a week and agreed. And things snowballed from there.”
Over time, Fr. Dan Felton, pastor of St. Francis at the time, encouraged him to participate in the Emmaus program, which he completed.
“That set my heart on fire as far as doing more in service to the church,” said Deacon Knipp. “Once I committed to helping at the parish, then I was ‘all in.’ I’ve enjoyed it all so much.”
He said Deacon Alan Boeldt and Deacon Bob Drobka were two other key figures in his spiritual growth. Deacon Boeldt first brought up pursuing the diaconate before Deacon Knipp enrolled in the Emmaus program. Over time, the two continued discussing it and, along with the support of Lisa, Fr. Felton and fellow parishioners, he decided to navigate the path of becoming a deacon.
“In my journey with him, it is clear that Mark is a people person who wants to serve and help others,” said Deacon Boeldt. “He is truly responding to God’s call to serve the community at large at St. Francis of Assisi.”
In addition to serving as the director of worship for nearly four years, Deacon Knipp serves with the Christian Experience Weekend retreat group and the Lakeshore Ecumenical Outreach mission group, and he’s a fourth-degree Knight of Columbus.
Deacon Knipp described his emotions about ordination as a mix of humbled, scared and overwhelmed.
“Throughout this whole process, there were times when a sense of doubt crept in,” he said. “But the support and encouragement of many people helped a lot. My friends have been huge supporters. My family has been great. So many people have played a role in helping me get to this place where I’m at today.
“It feels really good,” he added, “very fulfilling knowing how much things have changed and that I’m helping and supporting others like they’ve helped and supported me.”