Appleton’s deacon-duo ministers to multiple cultures in multiple ways

By Jean Peerenboom | For The Compass | February 26, 2015

APPLETON — Two deacons, three cultures, one ministry. That sums up how Deacon Tony Abts and Deacon Ernesto Gonzalez, Jr., bring their own gifts to ministry at St. Therese Parish, Appleton.

Deacon Tony Abts, left, and Deacon Ernesto Gonzalez, Jr., serve at St. Therese Parish in Appleton. Their ministries range from proclaiming the word at Mass to serving the community outside of the church. (Kathy Weigman | For The Compass)
Deacon Tony Abts, left, and Deacon Ernesto Gonzalez, Jr., serve at St. Therese Parish in Appleton. Their ministries range from proclaiming the word at Mass to serving the community outside of the church. (Kathy Weigman | For The Compass)

“The core,” Deacon Abts said, “is to bring people closer to Christ in whatever the situation is, wherever they are. Our ministry is all about faith and helping people to grow in their faith.”

The parish has a unique challenge in that parishioners come from three distinct ethnic groups: white, Hispanic and Micronesian.

“As a parish, we’re multi-cultural — as is our church. Our mission statement says ‘many cultures, one faith,’” he added.

The Anglos come from Germanic descent. St. Therese started in 1927 as a parish for German settlers on Appleton’s north side. Today the parish is home to the Hispanic community in the Fox Valley, reaching from Oshkosh to the Lakeshore, to the rural areas surrounding Appleton.

A third major group is Micronesians from Chuuk, one of four islands of the Federated States of Micronesia in the Pacific Ocean. “We have about 70 such members. They came here after traveling through Guam, Hawaii and Oregon,” Deacon Abts said. Some of them originally came to the valley to attend Fox Valley Technical College. The students stayed and brought family and friends. While the Chuuk people have their own language, they also speak English so language isn’t a barrier for them here.

While this multi-cultural ideology sounds good and inclusive, the reality of bringing such different people together can be both challenging and exciting, the deacons agree.

This means that some services are conducted in Spanish; some in English; some are bilingual. “We try to do what is comfortable for them,” Deacon Gonzalez said.

Part of an ongoing series about ministries that receive support for the Bishop's Appeal.
Part of an ongoing series about ministries that receive support from the Bishop’s Appeal.

“As a deacon, we do preparation for baptisms,” Deacon Abts said. “A couple may be married or not. They may have just a civil marriage. They may be close to the church or not. Grandma may be pushing for baptism. But, we have an opportunity to bring them closer to Christ and reconnect them to church. English or Spanish? It depends on where their comfort level is.

“Many times we may do the actual sacrament in Spanish because there is such a close connection between faith, culture and customs,” he added.

“We have an opportunity – a moment in time – where we have a chance to touch a family,” Deacon Gonzalez said. “Their friends and family may not be attending Mass, but they come for this sacrament. In the sacrament itself, we state, ‘Are you planning to bring this child into the Catholic faith?’ I really stress this. It has to reach their heart to be effective.”

Deacon Abts continued, “In the Hispanic culture, there is a close connection with faith. Many times it is more cultural than ecclesial. One of the challenges we both work on with the religious education program is getting the family connected so the children continue to grow in faith. These families come for sacraments, but we want them to come for religious education, too.”

The program has grown to 300 participants, and Deacon Gonzalez, who is fluent in Spanish, works with them.

Deacon Gonzalez was ordained on May 10, 2014, and assigned to St. Therese Parish. “It has been rewarding,” he said. “The opportunities are great and I’m grateful for the opportunities God has given me.

“The implementation of the rituals is work, but I want to make sure it is received. I want to make a difference. I walk softly,” he said with a smile. “This journey is more of a blessing than I thought it would be. I find people are drawn to you because they are seeking something. I have to develop a calmness and approachability so I can make a difference for them.”

Deacon Abts, who is also director of the diocese’s diaconate program, said deacons have three areas of service: service of the Word (teaching and preaching), service of worship, and service of charity and justice. “We do outreach ministry to the community – prisons, hospitals, St. Vincent de Paul, Goodwill and more,” he said. “We require deacons to be involved in all three. Through worship we are available to the community. People often approach us after a worship service.”

For Deacon Gonzalez, community service comes primarily in the form of Casa Hispana, a nonprofit community development corporation of the State of Wisconsin. Founded in 2006, it is located in Menasha and provides information, referrals, support and advocacy for area Hispanics. He relishes the work where he can help people deal with the issues they have to face in their lives.

“As a deacon, you have one foot firmly planted in the secular world and one in the church,” Deacon Abts said. “Ernesto has this opportunity with what he does with Casa Hispana. He helps them with their problems, but he also preaches homilies for them on Sunday. It makes a real connection in their lives.”

“Even at Casa Hispana, I sometimes take off that hat and put on my deacon hat,” Deacon Gonzalez said. “It’s what people need at the time. We can go into the meditation room and find calm.”

As director of the diaconate program, Deacon Abts splits time between his parish in Appleton and diocesan offices in Green Bay. A native of De Pere, he was ordained a deacon in 2010 and assigned to St. Therese. Before that he had been a member of St. Joseph Parish, Appleton, for 22 years and had worked in Catholic education for 35 years.

Moving forward, both deacons hope to see the diaconate become more diversified so it reflects the face of the church today. “We’re looking and planning for how we see our ministries and God’s plan,” Deacon Gonzalez said. “We want a unity of all cultures.”

Both men said families, especially the children, are getting to be bilingual. “We want that to remain.

“From there, we also want to nurture vocations. If we see people moving toward that, we want to help them out,” Deacon Gonzalez said.

“We have to make the diaconate reflect that face, too,” Deacon Abts added. “We are in need of Hispanic ministers in our diocese, especially in rural areas.”

Today, the diocese has 141 deacons and 30 men in formation, Deacon Abts said. The program has a formation process that includes courses at Silver Lake College, Manitowoc. More than 80 percent of the program’s total budget comes from Bishop’s Appeal.

“The funding from the Bishop’s Appeal enables us to help men discern their potential call to diaconal ministry. These funds help us in providing the formation programming that prepares men for ordination and Christ-centered service to the church,” Deacon Abts said. Last year, the diaconate program received $231,392 from the Bishop’s Appeal.

“Likewise, when challenges arise during ministry, the diaconate office is there to help. Again, provided through funding from the Bishop’s Appeal. The diaconate office also provides for ongoing formation and continuing education for deacons, and this, too, is funded by the Bishop’s Appeal,” Deacon Abts said.

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