SHIOCTON — Throughout his 33 years as a deacon, Ken Bilgrien has ministered to many people facing many different crises. His takeaway, as he prepares for retirement on July 1: “We can get too hung up on all of the theological this and that, and it’s really simple: love the Lord your God and your neighbor.”
Deacon Bilgrien’s love of God and neighbor began as a member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. It grew more intense after beginning his first job out of college and meeting his wife, Jan.
“Jan was a devout Catholic, but never pursued my turning Catholic,” he said. “I had attended the college church in St. Louis with Jan when we were dating — and even on my own. I found myself sitting in the back.”
The Bilgriens were married on Feb. 20, 1965, in St. Louis. Later that year, Deacon Bilgrien began a new job with Kingsberry Homes in Minnesota, which took him on the road.
“In my travels, I enjoyed visiting Catholic churches, even for Mass,” he said. “I always felt, when I walked into a Catholic church, that I was on holy ground. I did not feel that in the Lutheran Church. I’d sit in the back, just being in the presence of the Lord, even though I wasn’t participating in the Mass.”
Two experiences — both taking place while sitting in a Catholic church — led him to become Catholic.
“I found myself sitting one Wednesday afternoon during Lent in the cathedral at Winona, Minn., kind of discerning (his future). Quite frankly, I think I had gone as far as I could in the Lutheran faith. All of a sudden, the big pipe organ started up,” he said. His response to God: “OK, I hear you.”
“Of course, it was just the organist practicing for Easter, but God works in mysterious ways and I think maybe he needed something that loud to get my attention,” added Deacon Bilgrien.
The second experience happened while sitting in the chapel at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn.
“The monks came in and they sit in the choir area around the back side of the altar. One of them came out and said, ‘Would you like to join us?’ So up in the choir I go,” he said. “I’m sitting among these Benedictine monks and they know I’m not Catholic.”
The monks celebrated Mass, consecrating unleavened bread. “What really convinced me and probably led to my ordination is that those monks, knowing that I wasn’t Catholic, shared their Jesus with me,” he said. “I thought, ‘Boy, there’s something special here.’ To me, I believed in the real presence (of Jesus in the Eucharist) as a Lutheran. … Was I being heretical or causing scandal? No. When they gave me the body of Christ, I said ‘Yes, amen.’ That is the body of Christ, no two ways about it.”
Deacon Bilgrien entered the church in 1973. “From there, it really seemed the Lord was calling me to go deeper and deeper,” he said. “I think once I was a Catholic, nobody really was telling me I should become a deacon. It was the Lord calling me, ‘Hey, I’ve got a job for you to do.’”
He had taken a new job in 1975 with Wick Homes in Moberly, Mo., and was ordained for the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., on June 21, 1986. “Most of my diaconate ministry has been to the poor and the homeless at all of the different parishes I’ve been to,” he said. “In Moberly, we did start collections for the homeless, particularly at Christmastime. We got to the point where we had about 30 families we were able to support.”
After five years as a deacon in Moberly, the Bilgriens moved to Janesville, where Deacon Bilgrien served at St. John Vianney Parish from 1991 to 1999.
“I worked with a group called ECHO, Every Church Helping Others,” he said. “It’s an ecumenical agency that is more than just food and clothes. They work with providing rent, security deposits and utility bills.”
In 1999, the Bilgriens moved to Hortonville, which gave Deacon Bilgrien an opportunity to serve at SS. Peter and Paul Parish for 14 years. One of his early achievements was to start a satellite office for LEAVEN (an ecumenical resource center headquartered in Menasha that provides limited financial assistance to people in need) at the parish.
“When I started going around to the churches, because LEAVEN is ecumenical, I was just spreading the word” to other denominations, he said. “I said, ‘I just want to let you know that help is available for the poor, the needy.’ I had one pastor tell me, ‘Well, deacon, that’s all great, but we are a rural community and we don’t have a whole lot of poverty going on here.’ A year later, we had 237 families we were helping in the ‘rural, non-poverty’ area.”
LEAVEN continues to operate in Hortonville, even after Deacon Bilgrien departed for his most recent ministry in 2013.
Helping the poor, especially single moms, has been the highlight of his ministry, he said.
“I could go on with stories, such as women who hadn’t eaten for three days because they couldn’t afford to buy food for themselves and formula for the babies,” he said. “There was one gal that was feeding her baby a red liquid. I said, ‘What is that?’ and she said, ‘Sir, I can’t afford formula. I go to Kwik Trip and McDonalds and I get ketchup and sugar. I know there are nutrients in that.’”
Deacon Bilgrien was assigned to serve as pastoral coordinator at St. Denis Parish, Shiocton, and St. Patrick Parish, Stephensville, in 2013. It was the first time he held the post as coordinator, along with his diaconal duties. The experience was gratifying, he said, even though the parishes’ festivals were quite unique.
“Who would think some people would come and watch people throw cabbages up into the air?” he said about the annual St. Denis Parish Cabbage Chuck Festival. “The same ones that watch pig wrestling, I guess.”
Pig wrestling was held at St. Patrick until 2014, when it was replaced by human foosball due to an angry backlash and protestors. “I stepped into that one,” he said about the negative publicity, which began less than a year after he arrived in Stephensville. “You had picketers coming into Mass, screaming and shouting.”
Announcing his retirement and departure recently was harder than he anticipated.
“It was like tearing a hole in my heart,” he said. “I didn’t realize that that would happen. It was a deeper hole than any of the other parishes that I’ve ever left. I’m leaving my family here. But, the good Lord isn’t done with me yet.”
The Bilgriens plan to move to Stoughton, located southwest of Madison. “I want to get back into ministering to the poor,” Deacon Bilgrien said. He also wants to spend more time in prayer. “I’m kind of going back 20 years or so, having the spirituality that we’ve lost because of all the administrative stuff. I can spend more time in prayer rather than rushing through.”