By Kyle Eller
The Northern Cross
The Diocese of Duluth has a large new class of permanent deacons. Five men — Ralph Bakeberg, James Philbin, Carl Provost, Tim Richardson and Grant Toma — were ordained by Bishop Paul Sirba Nov. 22 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary in Duluth.
Deacon Bakeberg, 53, serves All Saints in Baxter. Deacon Philbin, 51, serves St. Benedict in Duluth. Deacon Provost, 50, serves St. Rose in Proctor. Deacon Richardson, 58, serves Immaculate Heart in Crosby. Deacon Toma, 43, serves Blessed Sacrament in Hibbing.
From left, Ralph Bakeberg, Jim Philbin, Carl Provost, Tim Richardson and Grant Toma listen to Bishop Paul Sirba during their ordination as permanent deacons Nov. 22. — Photo courtesy of Jerry Bock
In his homily, Bishop Sirba highlighted the role of service and echoed some themes of Pope Francis, like working in the church as being part of a “field hospital.”
“You are called to go to the fringes, as Pope Francis reminds us,” he said.
Deacon Bakeberg was born in Winsted and raised in Waverly. He met his wife Patty after three years in the Army and moved to Brainerd in 1977. They have been married 28 years and have two children and four grandchildren.
He said when he was younger, he had faith but wasn’t very active in the church, but with the arrival of his children, his faith started to grow deeper, and he knew he was hearing some kind of call, but he wasn’t sure to what. He kept making excuses.
“Then one day I started to pray the rosary, and not just saying it but really praying it,” he said. “The next thing I knew there were no more excuses, and I was checking to see if I was being called to be a deacon.”
He said formation has had its challenges. “I had a lot of struggles personally and academically,” he said. “When the times got rough I turned to the Lord and asked him if this is what I am supposed to be doing, and he said yes and carried me through the rough times.”
He says Patty was the main person he leaned on, talked to and sometimes complained to, and he said he’s had great support from his parish and from other deacons.
Deacon Bakeberg says he still finds himself humbled to be called.
“All I want to do is show people the love and mercy of Christ. How he wants me to do that I do not know, but I will follow him and do what he asks of me.”
Deacon Philbin, who with his wife Margo has two children, grew up a cradle Catholic in Chicago and attended Notre Dame. After he met Margo in college, they got involved in Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Seattle. He worked with homeless youth, as a youth minister, as a theology teacher and a campus minister, and he and Margo also worked at a retreat center and at a Catholic Worker community in the Northwest. In Duluth, where the family moved in 2000, he works with a small nonprofit that does afforable housing for low-income people.
Deacon Philbin said his father worked for the church, and he had an uncle who was a priest and a significant influence. “He was one of the most joy-filled, faithful people I ever met,” Deacon Philbin said. “Near the end of his life, just after the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, I began to feel God tapping me on the shoulder, as if to say that it was time for someone else in the family to pick up my uncle’s legacy.”
On a mission trip to El Salvador, he was “able to walk in the holy footsteps of one of my heroes,” Blessed Oscar Romero, and he read C.S. Lewis’ book “Mere Christianity” with its call to recognize Jesus as Lord.
“Alone in a tiny chapel in San Salvador, I realized that if I truly believed he was the Christ, then I had to make a complete commitment to him, just as my uncle and Romero did,” Deacon Philbin said.
Formation, which he began at a priest’s invitation, has been “transformative, challenging and rewarding” and made possible by his wife and daughters and the help of good friends with child care when the girls were young.
“In many ways I feel woefully inadequate, and then I think of the Twelve Apostles and know that our Lord does not ask us to be experts. He asks us to be faithful and forgiving,” Deacon Philbin said.
As for his future ministry, Deacon Philbin jokes that he hopes he doesn’t “knock anything over on the altar or light something on fire.”
He loves teaching and helping people to see how God is working in their lives. But he said being a deacon doesn’t mean being the best at everything. “I hope to do my part faithfully and joyfully, while celebrating the gifts that others bring,” he said. “For me, to be ordained with Pope Francis as our good shepherd is a true blessing. I hope to live and share the Joy of the Gospel!”
Deacon Provost was born and raised in Proctor. “Basically, I have been a member of St. Rose parish for 50 years — baptized there, attended grade school there, was confirmed there, raised my family there and now will . . . serve as deacon in the St. Raphael/St. Rose cluster.”
He and his wife Hollie married in 1988 and have four children and three grandchildren. He graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth with a degree in business administration and has worked for United Health Group since 1996.
Deacon Provost said he’s had a relationship with God since childhood and at one time aspired to be a priest, “but that wasn’t God’s will for me.”
He said that around the year 2000, he spent a lot of time working with and conversing with Deacon Tom Kubat, who was putting an addition on the house, and he started to feel called himself, more and more strongly, until he spoke to his pastor in 2009 and found himself in the program the next year.
He described formation as a “fabulous experience” that has given him knowledge of theology but more importantly helped build relationships with God and neighbor. “That has been the most rewarding,” he said, “to learn to put all my trust in him and to rely on him for everything. For us, everything is impossible, but for him all things are possible.”
He said he wasn’t sure what ministry would look like, but he seeks “to only do God’s will” and prays for the courage to carry out whatever is asked of him.
Deacon Richardson grew up on a farm in Boscobel, Wisconsin, and farmed until 1982, when he began a professional music career. In 1993, he started working with teens in an adolescent group home and eventually got an elementary teaching license and a special education license for emotional/behavioral disorders and finally a master’s degree in education. He teaches special education in Brainerd.
He met his wife Cindy through music and was married in 1983. Unlike his wife, Deacon Richardson was not Catholic. He says he considered himself an agnostic from his teens to his mid- 20s until he felt a “prodding” in 1993 and began the process of converting. RCIA was 25 miles away in Pequot Lakes at 7 p.m., and it was often after a music gig lasting into the wee hours the night before. “Much coffee was consumed during RCIA,” he said.
He became a secular Franciscan and thought his spiritual life would simply be a process of getting more deeply into that spirituality. But there was more coming.
“[A]bout 10 years ago I began experiencing some things at church that I couldn’t explain,” he said. “Sometimes I would sob spontaneously, seemingly without cause, before Mass, and during Mass. I didn’t make the connection for a while but then began to notice that it happened consistently when there was a deacon close by or topics in the readings and homilies regarding vocations, being a servant to the poor, etc.”
He discussed it with his pastor, and eventually he was approached by Deacon Jim Kirzeder, who had noticed him praying often and asked if he had ever considered a call to the diaconate. When Richardson said, “Yes, but I’m resisting,” he says Deacon Kirzeder told him: “Stop doing that!”
Formation was a “beautiful journey, but not without difficulty,” he says. Though there were times he considered not returning the next month, he said it’s been a process of spiritual, academic and human growth, learning to trust that God is in control.
“My first goal is simply to be a deacon — to be that bridge between the clergy and the laity,” he said. “I hope always to be accessible in my role as a deacon in the church but also as a godly man in the secular world.”
Beyond that, he said he hopes to remain open and docile to the Spirit, knowing that God may stretch him beyond his natural talents and skills.
Deacon Toma is the youngest of three children and has lived in Side Lake for 17 years. He and his wife Deb have four children and have been married 20 years. He works as a sergeant for the St. Louis County Sheriff’s office and has been a policeman for 21 years.
Deacon Toma says he is a crade Catholic who never really strayed from the church. “But I definitely had a deeper conversion prior to starting the diaconate program,” thanks to a good friend who sparked his faith by sharing a personal testimony.
One of the extraordinary parts of his formation process has been his family’s journey. “What was different than most couples going through the process is we had to rent houses down in Duluth so that we could make it work,” he said. “It was really the grace of God that it always worked out.”
The unusual housing was needed for nursing care. When they started the process, they had one daughter with special needs who required specialized care. During the first year, they learned they were expecting another child, and she too has special needs.
“What’s crazy is God still made it work,” Deacon Toma said. “And here I am five years later and only missing one weekend (which happened to be the first class of inquiry) amidst all our trials and countless hospitalizations. God is always good!”
He said that when he first started the formation process, he was interested in prison ministry, and he still is, but he has also found himself drawn to helping the poor. “I love visiting the homebound and will definitely continue that,” he said. “I’m excited to see where God leads me.”