Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski ordained three men — Jeffrey Fennewald, Robert Lawson and Joseph Martin — as transitional deacons
at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 6, at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis.
The men now enter their final year of formation before ordination to the priesthood. They also enter into the clerical state, and with that comes three promises that are made for the first time: obedience to the bishop, celibacy for the sake of God’s Kingdom and an obligation to pray daily the Liturgy of the Hours.
The three said they are looking forward to their roles as transitional deacons, including exercising the duties of the diaconate with “humble charity,” Martin said.
“Some theologians say that Christ instituted the diaconate at the washing of the feet,” he said. “Your feet are what brought you to the present moment. So when Christ washes your feet, one of the ways you can allow Him to do that is to accept all of the things that brought you to the present moment — and to thank Him for it, too.”
The men also spoke about the present reality of the priesthood, the future of the Church in the Archdiocese of St. Louis and what they are looking forward to as they complete their seminary formation.
“In a time with a lot of change, I have seen the way in which it gives people permission to dream,” Fennewald said. “It’s easy to get distracted by the uncertainty, but what I am most excited about is just to
be wherever I am placed and to be faithful there. The grace of the stability and obedience of the promises we make — there’s a freedom that comes with that. I get to start every day and end every day being faithful to the Lord and the people in front of me.”
Upon ordination, the transitional deacons will be assigned to assist at parishes in the archdiocese. As deacons, they will be given faculties to preach, so writing homilies during the week will become a new part of the routine. Transitional deacons also become more involved in sacramental-related activities, including marriage prep, RCIA formation, burials and baptisms.
‘A priestly heart’
First Mass preaching as a transitional deacon: 10 a.m. Sunday, May 7, at Sacred Heart in Troy
Family: Parents, Randy and Nancy; sisters, Allison and Emily
Home parish: Sacred Heart in Troy
Education: Troy Buchanan High School, Benedictine College, entered as a pre-theology student at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, Kenrick School of Theology
The call: The youth group at Sacred Heart in Troy was where Jeffrey Fennewald began taking his faith more seriously. His youth minister, Eddie Voltz — who eventually became Father Eddie Voltz — had a positive influence on him, too. “The people who seemed the most free and joyful were the people I saw staying close to the Eucharist and Confession. So I started to do that as well. Jesus was drawing me to Himself and the witness of these people and the priests were immensely impactful.”
“That’s where the seeds were planted, and when I learned how to pray and that Jesus was a person, not just an idea,” Fennewald said. Throughout his time in public high school, he began spending more time in prayer drawing closer to the Lord.
Though he first felt an openness to the priesthood in high school, Fennewald said he felt a stronger desire to follow the Lord to Benedictine College. This is where he saw where the Lord was leading him to next. He knew he wanted to become a father someday and viewed that as being in opposition to the priesthood. But his time at college revealed to him something else: “What changed was realizing that God wants to fulfill that desire by giving me more than just one household, but a whole parish,” he said.
Back home, Fennewald had gotten used to some of the older parishioners at Sacred Heart telling him he’d make a great priest. But then it started happening amongst his peers at Benedictine. “All of a sudden, it was people noticing that I had a priestly heart,” he said. “I had the idea growing up that I needed to do something great — through achievements or skills. What I have learned about myself is those things don’t matter so much to people who are looking for a father.”
As he is called forth to the sanctuary of the cathedral basilica, Fennewald recognizes that it’s the Church that’s calling him there. “I haven’t been brought here by myself,” he said. “It’s my family and the people who have cared for me.” He looks forward in his transitional deacon year to preaching the Gospel and to drawing closer to God’s people.
“It’s about being present to the people of God, but to preach the truth of the Gospel, especially as I have encountered that truth of the Gospel in my life,” he said.
‘Trust in God’
First Mass preaching as a transitional deacon: 4:30 p.m. Saturday, May 6, at All Souls in Overland
Family: Mother, Maryanne; sister, Krystal; brother, Nick
Home parish: All Souls in Overland
Education: Duchesne High School, Cardinal Glennon College, Kenrick School of Theology
The call: Second-grader Robbie Lawson was in the computer lab at at school one day when his pastor, Father John Leykam, stopped by for a visit. It was the early 2000s, and getting to use technology was a big deal to students at Holy Trinity School in St. Ann. But something else struck young Robbie about that day.
Father Leykam “walked in and the room lit up,” Lawson said. “Everyone was happy and overjoyed to see him. He gathered everyone in the front of the room. I don’t remember what he talked about, but at the end he gave us these metal crosses on purple ribbons. When he left, I sort of felt this tug of, I want to be like him when I grow up. I want to give love and joy to everyone around me.”
At the time, Lawson had no inkling of what it meant to be a priest, but he began to pay attention more closely. In addition to the influence of now-Msgr. Leykam, Lawson credited the influence of another priest at Holy Trinity, Father Anthony Ochoa. Through both priests, he said he’s learned what it means to be of service to the people and at the altar, two important aspects of the transitional diaconate.
By high school, it was no secret that Lawson was interested in the priesthood. “My best friend Paul, as soon as he would introduce me to someone, it was, ‘Oh this is Robbie Lawson, he’s going to be a priest,’” he recalled with a grin.
After entering the seminary and earning a degree at Cardinal Glennon College, Lawson began experiencing some health problems. He decided to take a year off to sort that out, which gave him an opportunity to be closer to home and to serve at his home parish. He also taught at Holy Trinity School. The break turned out to be providential, as he was present when the school announced its closure in 2019. (Holy Trinity Parish closed the following year.) He also experienced personal loss, with the death of his stepfather and a beloved older priest at the parish, Father Ted Pieper.
“I had my reasons for leaving, but God had His reasons for me to take that break as well,” Lawson said. In both situations, he had a unique role in walking with his own family and parish family through grief and loss. “I was able to be with the people and feel their hurt, because I was feeling it as well,” he said.
But through that, Lawson said he discovered hope and the understanding that all he is doing on the path to priesthood comes through trust in God.
As a transitional deacon, “I am going to do everything I can, but ultimately He is working in the background and has amazing things planned as well,” he said. “The Lord is working through me and using me in His plans in probably ways I can’t see. But I can trust Him and know He has the best things in mind.”
‘The intervention of grace’
First Mass preaching as a transitional deacon: 9 a.m. Sunday, May 7, at Saint Louis Abbey in Creve Coeur
Family: Parents, Jeffrey and Ann; brothers, Thomas, Robert, Michael and Jeffrey; sisters, Katherine and Clare
Home parish: St. Anselm in Creve Coeur and the Oratory of Sts. Gregory and Augustine
Education: Homeschool, Saint Louis University, entered as a pre-theology student at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, Kenrick School of Theology
The call: Joseph Martin grew up in a tight-knit family. He received the faith from his parents, and through his experience of homeschooling received a strong catechesis and exposure to Catholic culture and traditions. At a young age, he served at Mass. Other priests noticed a certain reverence and piety about him.
Sometimes they’d ask: “Joe, have you ever thought about being a priest?” One time around the age of 10 or 11, Martin served at a Mass with then-Archbishop Raymond L. Burke. The prelate asked him, too, if he’d thought about becoming a priest someday.
Priesthood took a back seat by the time he reached high school, though Martin said he never completely ruled it out. As it seemed, God didn’t rule him out, either. He became more self-aware of how easily his Catholic faith could become compartmentalized.
“I couldn’t have my faith in one department of my life and the rest of my life in another department,” he said. Martin stayed close to the Mass and the sacraments, and in college began making more conscious choices to develop his prayer life and to invest in friends who shared the same faith and values. He also looked to a trusted priest friend, Father Chris Martin (no relation), for accountability, and to the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“Those things allowed grace to intervene in my life, and there was a second conversion,” he said.
Martin applied to the seminary and was asked to take some extra time to grow in prayer and interior freedom. He was at peace — he knew that was coming from God, and he accepted it. The extra time turned out to be a blessing. After college, he went on retreats, helped his father at his medical practice and visited with family.
And when the time came to come back to Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, it solidified that “yes, God was calling me,” he said.