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Deacons meet Christ in the face of those suffering

The phone call came from out of the blue, a random query from a potential customer similar to other calls into Ken Potzman's construction company: Someone wanted him to bid on a job.

Simple as that, except this turned out to be more than your average, run-of-the-mill request for a job bid. It proved to be the ministry component of The Call, capital 'T' and capital 'C.'

Already in formation to be a deacon, the first aspect of God's Call, Potzman literally and figuratively answered this one, changed the trajectory of his life and gave it humbly in service to the Lord; he left construction and went full-time into hospital ministry. Likewise with close friend Herb Gettemeier, whom Potzman inspired to make a similar switch.

Deacons Potzman and Gettemeier represent the diaconate Class of 1977, the first permanent deacons in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. The last living members of the first class, they were among 12 men ordained by Cardinal John Carberry on Jan. 29, 1977, a chilly day in St. Louis with the temperature in the teens. Independently, each describes the marble in front of the altar while laying prostrate as feeling cold as ice ... but not for long.

"With the laying of hands, you could feel the Holy Spirit, the warmth," Deacon Potzman said. "You didn't feel the cold."

Forty years later, Deacon Potzman remains the youngest man ever ordained to the permanent diaconate in St. Louis at 35 years, 11 days old. At 75, he remains in full-time ministry as the director of Mercy Hospital St. Louis's pastoral services, still meeting patients as chaplain for oncology/palliative care — six hours of his 11-hour days.

Deacon Gettemeier was 45 years old at ordination. Now retired and living at Veronica House in the Sarah Community, he writes books about his service to the Lord. He self-published the first, "Thy Kingdom Come," which was sold through the St. Vincent de Paul Society. He's working on his second.

They'll mark the 40th anniversary of their ordination, Sunday, Jan. 29, and celebrate their ministries in health care, traceable to that day in the mid-70s when Ken Potzman picked up the telephone.

"The Lord works in mysterious ways," Deacon Potzman said.

"God's been very good to me," Deacon Gettemeier said, simply.

The Call

Typically, the deacons maintain secular careers through formation and after ordination. Among permanent deacons in the archdiocese, Deacons Potzman and Gettemeier are atypical in leaving secular careers for full-time ministries, which occurred after Sister Jane Dempsey called Potzman that day in 1976. She wanted a bid on new bathrooms at the Religious Sisters of Mercy's McAuley Hall, which started in the 1930s as a home for young and single working women but had morphed into an old-folks home as the women never left.

There was something different about this call, though. For one, how did Sister Jane get Potzman's name? He didn't know her or anyone who knew her. Plus, McAuley Hall was in the City of St. Louis, the Central West End; his company was in North St. Louis County, near Florissant. She geographically leap-frogged many construction companies to reach his.

But at the time, these were merely curiosities. A stranger in the city needed a bid for bathrooms, and Potzman was all over it. A visit to McAuley Hall ensued, the bid proffered ... but there was one minor problem.

"She said, 'This is great, but I have to tell you we don't have any money,'" Deacon Potzman said, with a laugh. "So, I said, 'I'll go ahead and put the bathrooms in and we won't charge.' After I got finished, she said, 'You know what, Ken? You're never going to make it in business.'"

No matter. Sister Jane had another idea.

In three weeks on the job, Potzman frequently walked through a hallway in which the sisters 'charism was on-display; corporal and spiritual works of Mercy depicted in wall-sized murals. The 'Visit the Sick' painting stood out.

"On one side, Jesus was washing the feet of Mary Magdalene, and right next to it the Good Samaritan was binding up the wounds of the man by the road; that touched my heart," said Deacon Potzman, who told Sister Jane that "there's something about that painting."

"She asked if I had ever thought of health-care ministry, and I hadn't. She was the first one who said, 'Maybe God's calling you to be a chaplain.'"

Potzman talked it over with his wife, Barb, and his spiritual director, got permission from Cardinal Carberry to pursue full-time health care ministry and jumped right in. He sold his business, got his clinical pastoral education/training and received certification from the National Association of Catholic Chaplains.

Then, he returned to the Mercy sisters for a job in pastoral care. He passed the first interview with Sister Mary Roch Rocklage, well known in health care in the St. Louis area, but, he then had to meet department's priest, Father Hugh Carroll, whom Sister Roch called "a tough cookie."

As luck would have it, Father Carroll's Labrador Retriever sat in on the interview, actually nuzzled next to Potzman on the couch. Deacon Potzman had a new best friend.

"His dog took to me immediately," he said, with a laugh. "At the end of the interview, Father Carroll said, 'I'm not sure what to think of all this diaconate stuff, but my dog likes you and that's good enough for me.'"

What's a deacon?

Father Carroll's assessment spoke of the times. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had only gotten permission in 1968 to restore the permanent diaconate, setting guidelines for it in 1971: two years of formation and another year continuing education after ordination. By 1974, Cardinal Carberry had restored the diaconate in the archdiocese. Father Clarence Deddens served as the first unofficial director, with now-Bishop John R. Gaydos assisting.

Deacon Potzman first became aware of the diaconate at a conference at the University of Notre Dame, where he saw a deacon assisting at a Mass. He made inquiries and learned of the new program in the archdiocese.

"I thought God might be calling me to something more," said Deacon Potzman, who had explored religious life while in high school but discerned that he wasn't being called in that direction.

Through Charismatic Renewal, along with a timely bulletin announcement, Deacon Gettemeier also learned about the new program. Though unfamiliar with the diaconate, pastors at Potzman's and Gettemeier's parishes — neighboring St. Christopher and St. Dismas, respectively — recommended them for formation.

Still, the diaconate remained uncharted territory. Some priests didn't know what to make of the new deacons, what ministry for them, etc.

"It was brand new at the time," explained Deacon Potzman, adding that Father Deddens emphasized perseverance in the class's first meeting. "Some (priests) didn't accept it, but (others) really embraced it and encouraged it. I had the opportunity to be involved with remarkable priests and nuns who were very supportive."

His positive experience rubbed off on Deacon Gettemeier, who had become "one of my dearest friends" in formation. They often shared rides to classes held through the Paul VI Institute

"After about a year, he asked, 'How's it working out?' I said, 'Herb, it's the most wonderful ministry you can ever imagine,'" Deacon Potzman said, explaining, "It's an opportunity to meet people in crisis times of their life, when they need somebody to be with them. People faced with critical illness, people faced with terminal disease, people who are dying and suffering ... what better place than to meet Christ in the face of those people?"

Deacon Gettemeier also had worked in construction, built a few rectories and convents for the archdiocese and helped develop subdivisions for his family's real estate firm. He then was a banker before going into full-time ministry at St. Mary's Hospital, likewise receiving permission to do so, getting education/training and getting national certification. In addition to Deacon Potzman's feedback, Deacon Gettemeier had experience through one of his first assignments as a deacon — visiting residents at St. Sophia Nursing Home. His wife, Joey, often joined him.

"I got to love it so much," he said. "We were used to praying with people."

Deacon Gettemeier didn't wear a deacon's white collar and gray shirt at St. Mary's, which proved to be a blessing in ministering to patients of other religious traditions. Like Deacon Potzman, he experienced the Lord first-hand in the faces of vulnerable patients, who often confided in him. He listened and held in confidence "confessions" of non-Catholic patients, while advising Catholics to seek reconciliation.

He spent 15 years at St. Mary's before retiring, then returned to the residents of St. Sophia while still assisting at St. Dismas. Through the years, he witnessed weddings for three children and baptized nine grandchildren and "most of my great-grandchildren." In fact, his last official duty as a deacon was baptizing a great-grandchild.

At 85, Deacon Gettemeier lived through a health scare a year ago, a complication of shoulder surgery, COPD and kidney function. "I was scheduled to die, but God didn't want me yet," said Deacon Gettemeier, now recovered and enjoying the fruits of retirement.

Retirement seems to be far off for Deacon Potzman, who credits the Mercy sisters — "a remarkable group of women" — for mentoring him, encouraging him and helping with his formation.

"Without them, I wouldn't be here," he said, hearkening to that phone call more than 40 years ago. He still "loves every minute" of his ministry and will retire only "when the good Lord says, 'it's time to go.' As long as I have the energy and enthusiasm, I'm going to keep serving the Lord." 

Spiritual Works of Mercy

• Instruct the ignorant

• Counsel the doubtful

• Admonish the sinner

• Bear wrongs patiently

• Forgive offences willingly

• Comfort the afflicted

• Pray for the living and the dead

The Corporal Works of Mercy

• Feed the hungry

• Give drink to the thirsty

• Clothe the naked

• Welcome the stranger

• Visit the sick

• Visit the imprisoned

• Bury the dead 

>> Diaconate information meetings

The diaconate Class of 2022 will form later, with an upcoming series of information nights for prospective deacons. Five years of formation precedes ordination, with the first as an introductory year and the next four of classroom formation. Typically, deacons assist pastors at their home or nearby parishes; they assist at Masses and serve as needed for baptisms, weddings, funerals, communion services and the like. But some also serve in other ministries, such as prison, hospital or pro-life efforts. After ordination, the time commitment is 10 hours per week.

>> Schedule

• Thursday, Feb. 9 at St Monica (Creve Coeur)

• Tuesday, March 7 at Miraculous Medal Shrine (Perryville)

• Thursday, March 9 at Assumption (O'Fallon)

All meetings will begin at 7 p.m.

More information: Contact the Office of the Diaconate at (314) 792-7430 

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