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Winsted permanent deacon ministry is in its infancy

Dec. 21, 2009

By Linda Scherer
Staff Writer

WINSTED, MN – The role of deacon in the Catholic church is in its infancy, according to Deacon Mike Thoennes, who is currently serving at Holy Trinity Parish in Winsted along with maintaining his Distinctive Dental Services practice in Winsted and Howard Lake.

“Over the last 45 years, deacons have been setting the stage of what deacons do, and how they act,” Thoennes said.

The permanent deacon ministry was reinstated in the mid-1960s by Vatican II, but many Catholics know little about the ordained ministers who serve the Catholic community.

Holy Trinity Pastor Fr. Tony Hesse, who became pastor in Winsted in July, has found Thoennes’ contribution to his parish invaluable.

“Deacon Mike has truly been a blessing to me,” Hesse said. “I never had a deacon to help assist my ministry and me. As time goes on, I am learning more and more about his ministry and his willingness to help me. He is always there and I value his help and his service, his friendship and his humor.”

Thoennes was ordained a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis Sept. 28, 2001, with approval by Archbishop Harry Flynn because, at the time, the Diocese of New Ulm did not have a permanent deaconate program.

There are two kinds of deacons – transitional and permanent. A transitional deacon normally proceeds to the priesthood. Both are ordained ministers through the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

Permanent deacons can be married or unmarried. If a permanent deacon is single when he is ordained, he must remain single and celibate, just like a priest.

Deacons must have permission from the bishop before coming to a parish, and then they are subordinate to the pastor.

They can baptise, marry, and officiate at funerals and burial services, proclaim the Gospel, preach, and teach.

“We like to make sure people know that deacons are not mini-priests,” Thoennes said. “We have our own charisms (what it means to be a deacon), and those charisms are based on liturgy and service to the community as servants of the sacraments.”

A deacon cannot hear confessions, celebrate Mass or anoint the sick, all part of the ministry of a priest.

Thoennes began serving as deacon at St. Mary’s in Waverly when he was first ordained.

In September 2007, Fr. Bill Sprigler asked Thoennes to move from Waverly parish to Holy Trinity.

Together, they went to Archbishop Nienstedt, who was bishop of the New Ulm Diocese at the time.

Nienstedt gave his permission for Thoennes to serve Holy Trinity Parish.

Before he was given general permission by Nienstedt to serve in Winsted, it was necessary for Thoennes to petition the bishop for everything that he did within the parish.

An example would be baptism, which he is ordained to do, but it required the the bishop’s permission to perform each baptism until he received general permission to serve Holy Trinity Parish.

About the time Nienstedt gave Thoennes permission to serve Holy Trinity Parish, he also started a deaconate formation program in New Ulm.

It is a five-year program, and Thoennes is on the commission of deacons in New Ulm working with the formation of the candidates who will be ordained deacons in three more years.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke on the importance of the permanent deaconate ministry in today’s church February 2008. He talked about the visibility of the diaconal dimension.

“At the same time, it (deacon ministry) can equally be the link between the lay world, the professional world, and the world of the priestly ministry – given that many deacons continue carrying out their professions and maintain their positions. . . In this way they give witness in the world of today, as well as in the working world, of the presence of faith. . .”

Before Dr. Thoennes was ordained

It was 30 years ago, that Thoennes first came to Winsted to start his dental practice.

He had looked at other towns, but definitely felt something pulling him to the town of Winsted.

He had met with Ben Weinbeck, owner of the old theater building, which had a perfect office area available.

“I didn’t want to come. I can tell you that even though I was not a disciple of Christ, I kept feeling this pull to be here,” Thoennes said.

“Three times Ben Weinbeck offered to rent to me, and three times I said no and then three times I said yes,” Thoennes said.

“I knew this was crazy, but I came anyway.”

Thoennes’ dental practice was successful immediately.

But having just his dental practice wasn’t enough for Thoennes, who “really didn’t feel all that terribly fulfilled.”

He was very involved with the church, volunteering his time in the choir, serving on the Parish Pastoral council, and volunteering many hours of his time for other various church activities.

“But it really didn’t feel like it was part of, ‘what is the purpose of the rest of your life,’” Thoennes said.

He read through the entire catechism of the Catholic church.

“It is meant to be a reference book, and not read from cover-to-cover, but I read it from cover-to-cover twice,” Thoennes said.

His objective was to learn what the church teaches.

In what Thoennes calls a “conversion experience,” December 1997, his life began to change dramatically.

On his way home by Lake Mary one evening, he saw a single man’s house on fire.

The Winsted Fire Department was there and Thoennes continued to watch the fire from his car as he drove to his home about a half-mile away.

“I was thinking and came to the realization that my life was like that house on fire. That everything I had one day will be gone, and all I had was my relationship with God,” Thoennes said.

“I was thinking there is not a Brinks truck that goes to the cemetery with your possessions, nor a U-Haul,” Thoennes said. “All that mattered was how you acted and how you loved other people. That was overwhelming to me.”

Thoennes went to the Diocese of New Ulm as a member of Holy Trinity Parish to talk with Bishop Raymond Lucker, who was bishop in New Ulm Diocese at the time, about a vocation as a deacon.

“I was not interested in leaving my practice. I found that dentistry has become more of a mission in and of itself,” Thoennes said.

Lucker was ordaining transitional deacons at the time, but was not interested in ordaining permanent deacons, according to Thoennes.

That was when Thoennes approached Archbishop Harry Flynn in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, where he became part of the Archdiocese’s permanent deaconate formation program.

Since becoming a permanent deacon, Thoennes has found his life is fulfilled.

“I was one of those baptized Catholics who went through all of the sacraments, but truly did not have that conversion to Christ,” Thoennes said.

“I first had to be a disciple of Christ and then, everything else fell into place.”


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