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Deacon Joseph Fragale talked and laughed with parishioner Harold Ernst after Mass at St. Ambrose Church on The Hill on Sept. 23.
Deacon Joseph Fragale talked and laughed with parishioner Harold Ernst after Mass at St. Ambrose Church on The Hill on Sept. 23.

Permanent deacons: ‘Living out the Gospel through corporal works of mercy’

Foundation of parish ministry to help others is a continuation of deacons' call to serve

Although service in Church ministry drew Deacon Joseph Fragale to the permanent diaconate, he “had no idea” how that service would transpire after ordination.

“I knew there was a lot of work out there, but I didn’t know how it would come or what it would be like once I got started doing outreach ministry in a parish community,” Deacon Fragale said. “I’m learning as I go.”

He’s learning well, thank you. After being assigned to St. Ambrose on The Hill, he founded the St. Ambrose Society in 2016 “to live out the Gospel through corporal works of mercy.” Deacon Fragale describes himself as “overwhelmed” to have watched dedicated parishioners volunteer time and donate resources in outreach to the poor, sick, marginalized and many others in the St. Louis community and abroad.

Deacon Fragale was ordained in the 20-man diaconate class of 2014. Formation to be a deacon consists of five years before ordination and an additional three years post-ordination. A second collection will be held in the Archdiocese of St. Louis Oct. 6-7 to relieve some of the financial burden for the men in diaconate formation.

Speaking about the St. Ambrose Society, Deacon Fragale said, “It’s just a great feeling seeing the St. Ambrose community moved by such compassion, everybody pitching in or providing money so that our community can serve another community.

“It’s great to see people live out the Gospel in this way” said Deacon Fragale, 55, who recently took early retirement from a utility company and became St. Ambrose’s full-time deacon on staff. He shares passion for helping the poor with pastor Msgr. Vince Bommarito.

The St. Ambrose Society serves about 1,600 sandwiches per month through St. Patrick Center and Sts. Peter and Paul Homeless Shelter, prepares and serves meals each month for Father Dempsey Home and Sts. Peter & Paul and serves in the Missionaries of Charity soup kitchen. In addition, it has collected back-to-school backpacks for the Criminal Justice Ministry and raised money for St. Mary Parish in St. Croix for hurricane relief.

The latest outreach is the Claver House Read & Feed program, which Deacon Fragale learned about via a story in the St. Louis Review. “My heart was so moved about those children knocking on doors looking for food,” said Deacon Fragale, who has been married to his wife, Susie, for 23 years. They have four grown children and two grandchildren.

In the summer, St. Ambrose Society made 500 hot meals for Claver House’s month-long summer camp. Volunteers cooked twice a week in St. Ambrose’s school cafeteria during the camp program. The Society still prepares 85 brown-bag meals a week for children in Read & Feed, recently adding meatball and pasta meals for families in the St. Matthew Parish neighborhood.

Deacon Fragale estimates that routine food preparation takes seven to 10 volunteers, with the roster growing to 10-15 in summer program: “It’s not always the same people. Over the course of the year, it might be over 150. It takes a lot of volunteers and lot of resources.”

But the service is rewarding, particularly in so many people giving back to the greater community. The area of Italian immigrants built itself up from a hard-scrabble, impoverished existence around the turn of the 20th century into a solid middle class neighborhood by the 21st, with small neighborhood shops, bakeries, grocers and restaurants.

“This neighborhood has such a proud tradition and worked themselves out of poverty,” said Deacon Fragale, who grew up on The Hill but at the former St. Aloysius Parish. “There’s a lot of accomplished people in this neighborhood and a strong connection to the past. When we started (St. Ambrose Society), people were all over it: ‘We built this community, now let’s take St. Ambrose to rest of the world, give back and help other poor communities.’ The turnout of volunteers, the donations … it’s been overwhelming.”

Deacon Fragale never saw any of this coming in formation, though formation helped him grow personally and spiritually to prepare for this time.

“You feel the call and want to be a deacon, and you think, ‘Just give me my marching orders and let me go,’ but there’s a lot of formation that needs to happen,” he said. “You just don’t bring all that theology, pastoral knowledge and spiritual life together that quickly. It takes a long time, but it’s time well-spent.”

Collection for deacon formation

A special collection for the formation of permanent deacons will be held at Vigil and Sunday Masses on the weekend of Oct. 6-7 at parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. This collection relieves some of the financial burden for studies to become a deacon, which consists of a five-year formation before ordination and an additional three years post-ordination.

Since 1977, 465 men have been ordained as permanent deacons in the archdiocese, including 82 retired deacons and 197 in active ministry. The permanent diaconate ordination classes of 2020 and 2022 total 44 men in formation.

“During formation and after ordination, deacons offer their time, personal gifts and material goods to build up the Church in the Archdiocese without compensation,” Archbishop Robert J. Carlson stated. “Their service extends into many areas of parish life, as they assist all of us in carrying out the mission of the Church.”

Deacons serve in parishes, hospitals, archdiocesan agencies and other organizations. Six deacons serve as parish life coordinators. Half of the active deacons continue to work full-time jobs, balancing family lives and professions with their ministries as deacons.

>> Deacon information nights

The Permanent Diaconate Office will hold four information nights — two in the fall, two in March — for single or married men (and their wives) interested in learning about the diaconate in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Applications will be due in June 2019, with notifications for the Class of 2024 coming next summer.

Who • Married men and their wives, or single men

When • Tuesday, Oct. 23; Tuesday, Nov. 6; Tuesday, March 12; Thursday, March 21 (time, 7-9 p.m. for all sessions)

Where • Cardinal Rigali Center, 20 Archbishop May Drive, Shrewsbury

Why • To learn about the five-year Diaconate Formation Program and potentially serve the Lord as an ordained deacon of the Catholic Church.

Information • Call Deacon Dale Follen of the Permanent Diaconate Office at (314) 792-7433

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