CECIL — Deacon Michael Grzeca admits to learning something from every job he ever had, and that includes the permanent diaconate.
Reminiscing before retiring from active ministry, the 69-year-old pointed to the value of a parish food pantry as one of the many things he learned in his 18 years as a deacon.
It’s about more than just feeding the hungry.
At St. Martin of Tours in tiny Cecil, where Deacon Grzeca has been the pastoral leader since 2010, the parish food pantry on the back side of the church supports 80 to 100 families every month. It’s a growing ministry for a poor, rural area of the Diocese of Green Bay.
“The food pantry has morphed into quite something else,” said the man parishioners call Deacon Mike. “We just added a truck to haul more food and a commercial cooler. There’s a real need here in eastern Shawano County. There are not a lot of great-paying jobs here. I was surprised to learn our food pantry was the number two social service organization in the county.
“But there’s more going on than just helping people with food,” he added. “I learned, slowly, but I learned, that it’s a wonderful evangelization tool.”
When folks came to the food pantry, he talks to them about their prayer life, their church practice, invites them to come to Mass, asks if their children had been baptized.
“We’ve had a number of people who came to the food pantry join the church,” said Deacon Grzeca. “A single mom got her kids baptized, and then the mom was baptized, too.”
A Milwaukee native who grew up in Sheboygan, he is a graduate of Marquette University and Marquette University Law School. He was a long-time trial attorney with the firm Everson and Whitney and later a judge briefly before losing an election. A stint as the director of Evangelization and Worship for the Green Bay Diocese helped him understand how the church works at the diocesan level, he said.
Ordained a deacon in 2001, his first assignment was at Resurrection Parish in Allouez.
“I learned a lot at Resurrection about parish life,” Deacon Grzeca said. “RCIA, faith formation” — and he chuckled — “teaching fifth grade boys who didn’t want to be there.”
When he worked for the diocese, Camp Tekakwitha at the other end of Shawano Lake came under his purview, so when there was an opening for a pastoral leader at St. Martin, he knew about Cecil.
Even with his graduate degree in theological studies from St. Norbert College in De Pere, Deacon Grzeca admitted, “I was a complete neophyte about what a pastoral leader does — everything from finance to meeting payroll. I made some mistakes, but there’s been something very fulfilling about it.
“I remember thinking, ‘Lord, what am I doing here?’ but I enjoyed being parish leader here. It’s a privilege. The people taught me much. They let you into their lives,” he said.
Deb Thiel, who has volunteered at the food pantry, gives Deacon Grzeca credit for bringing the physical interior of St. Martin Church up-to-date and “really picking up the game” of the food pantry.
His concern for the less fortunate impressed her at Christmas when she and her husband, Kevin, made a special donation. Thiel recalled, “He said, ‘I know just who I can give this to to pay their rent.’ He’s just a good guy.”
For his part, Deacon Grzeca considered his 18 years in ministry “a very big learning experience.”
Outside of the administration part at St. Martin of Tours, he found himself doing a lot of pastoral counseling and spiritual direction.
Learning what he labeled “intentional vulnerability” was the most important piece for him.
“You have to intentionally let yourself be vulnerable, where, as St. Paul says, it’s not about me when someone has a problem or there’s an issue to be solved,” he said.
He and his wife, Linda, have a cabin near Pembine, and in retirement, he’ll fish for trout and bird hunt. He also hopes to do some magazine writing. He’s a history buff, especially about World War II.
“I hope to take a tour of the battle sites in Europe,” he said. “The history of the war still carries through strongly in our society.”