Believing himself to be more than a mere mortal, Joseph Mignogna thought when he started as a deacon just shy of his 35th birthday — he could do it all.
He could be a fine father to his four children, the youngest of whom had just been born. He could be a good husband. He could be a stellar employee at the rapidly growing Houston-based steel supply company where he worked. He could serve God and others as a deacon at St. Edward Catholic Community in Spring, Texas. He was at full-throttle, he said, from morning until night, week days and weekends.
“When you get ordained, there is a special grace that comes with it,” Mignogna said. “At first you think you walk on water.”
Of course, Mignogna discovered he had the same buoyancy as everyone else. Within a few years, the weight of a demanding job, busy young family and diaconal commitments left Mignogna exhausted, and he was forced to temporarily withdraw from his Church duties.
“I was burned out,” he said. “You think you can do everything; I had a hard time saying ‘no.’”
Mignogna emerged a year later recharged, humbled and committed to being the best deacon he could be.
Sunday, busy Sunday
|Deacon Mignogna with his wife, Theresa. Courtesy photo
These days, Mignogna, now 62, said he’s learned to balance his life more carefully, even if it does mean rising at 4 a.m. Weekdays, he starts his day off with a workout at the gym with his wife, Theresa, who works part-time as a nurse. Then he sets off from his home in Tomball, Texas, to his office near Hobby Airport in southeast Houston, where he is senior vice president at Triple-S Steel Supply, arriving at 7 a.m. After putting in a full day’s work, most days he heads off to what can only be described as his second job at Sts. Simon and Jude Catholic Parish in The Woodlands, Texas, where he transitions to Deacon Joe. It’s another three or four hours before he arrives home from church, and then to bed at around 11 p.m.
“I catch up on sleep at the weekends,” he said, laughing.
No one day is typical in Mignogna’s line of mission work.
On a recent Sunday morning, Mignogna, one of five deacons at Sts. Simon and Jude, was up early to prepare for the 7:30 a.m. Mass, which drew some 800 people. That morning, Mignogna, attired in an alb and emerald dalmatic, was assisting the priest. With Mass over, Mignogna, an imposing, beaming figure, strode out front of the church to visit with parishioners as they filed out. His duties done for the day, Mignogna returned home, with the possibility of laying down his head for an afternoon nap.
Other Sundays, it’s a different story. The Sunday of Labor Day weekend, Mignogna assisted and preached at all three Masses, and between two of them, he conducted a talk about annulments.
“I’m always working; the only time I feel like I’m off is when I leave Houston,” Mignogna said.
Deacon of all trades
Outside of Mass, whether it’s a Sunday, a Saturday or a Wednesday, Mignogna might be teaching marriage preparation classes, doing marriage counseling, meeting with the church’s building committee or administration commission, visiting the homebound, the sick and dying.
He has sat with parishioners dying of cancer, comforted a father whose son was dying of a heroine overdose and coordinated food shopping for grieving families.
“What’s most important when it comes to sickness and death, it’s your presence — just being there,” Mignogna said.
There are the private talks with troubled parishioners and the clergy meetings and social functions to attend. Mignogna cited the recent Saturday evening dinner marking the one-year anniversary of the death of Sts. Simon and Jude’s founding pastor, Msgr. Charles Domec, to raise money for a room at the retired priests’ residence at St. Dominic Village by the Texas Medical Center.
“Whatever the pastor wants me to do, I do,” said Mignogna, referring to Father Pat Garrett, who took over from Msgr. Domec. “In one way, the church is run like a business with vision and goals, but it’s church goals and vision. Our biggest job is to get people to heaven — to build a kingdom of God.”
“Being a deacon, it’s better for the Church, but it’s hard on the family. In the end I want them to say I was a good Christian man.”— Deacon Joe Mignogna
Under the guidance of Father Garrett, combined with the robust economic growth in the area, Sts. Simon and Jude, a community of more than 3,000 families and counting, is undergoing a renaissance, according to Mignogna.
“With the arrival of the new pastor, the church has become more energized, and I’ve been part of that agenda,” he said.
Mignogna has been involved in the planning of the current $8.5 million renovation and construction project that includes a gym and classrooms, part of a multiphase rebuilding and remodeling master plan started under Msgr. Domec to accommodate future growth.
Mignogna came to Sts. Simon and Jude six years ago, having volunteered to boost the ranks of its deacons, diminished through retirement or illness. Deacons retire at 70, but some continue with lighter duties.
“I was happy to go,” Mignogna said.
Prior to that, Mignogna served as a deacon at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, also in The Woodlands, a parish he helped start 13 years before as an offshoot of Sts. Simon and Jude.
Becoming a deacon wasn’t a great leap for Mignogna. Born and raised in a devout Catholic family in Portage, a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania, Mignogna was educated in Catholic schools through 12th grade and eventually earned a master’s degree in theology from the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
“I always had an affinity for the institution of the Catholic Church,” he said. “It was always there for me, and as my faith grew, I wanted to do more.”
|Deacon Mignogna said the best thing about being a deacon is helping people. Photo by Annette Baird
An encounter with a permanent deacon at a Bible study group in his late 20s planted the seed in Mignogna of becoming a deacon.
“I thought, ‘I’d like to do that,’” Mignogna said.
Mignogna grew more interested in the teachings of the Church, through Bible study and his children’s Sunday school classes, first while attending St. Leo the Great and later while attending St. Edward’s in Spring.
Believing he was ready, Mignogna announced to his pastor at St. Edward’s that he was ready to start formation as a deacon. Unimpressed, the pastor challenged Mignogna to first do more outside of his own needs.
“I was always doing something for me, generally gathering and bringing in and having my faith grow, but I wasn’t doing much outside of that,” Mignogna said. Throughout the following year, Mignogna visited hospitals and nursing homes, enlisting his children to come with him. “We made it like a family ministry,” he said.
Satisfied Mignogna was ready to start his spiritual journey on the path to becoming a permanent deacon, Mignogna’s pastor agreed to sponsor him for what was then a four-year training and education program at the Holy Name Passionist Retreat Center. Mignogna attended classes once a week and one Sunday a month while still carrying out mission parish work. His wife, he said, raised the children. And on June 2, 1990, Mignogna was ordained a permanent deacon, just shy of his 35th birthday, the youngest age allowed for a deacon.
“I couldn’t have gone through a better formation program,” Mignogna said. “This archdiocese has probably the best in the world; it’s becoming a model to follow.”
Mignogna is one of around 350 permanent deacons in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. Described as the bridge between the laity and the priests, deacons are charged with exercising a ministry of liturgy, word and charity. They conduct services, including baptisms and funerals; they start and grow ministries at the parish level and work with agencies of the archdiocese.
Mignogna has experienced all of these. Though there is great sadness in his work, he said there is much to celebrate. He has officiated at the weddings of more than 200 couples. In one family alone, he helped with a burial, three marriages, two annulments and a couple of baptisms. “What I like about being a deacon is the people I have come to know and to help,” Mignogna said. “I’ve gotten to be a part of people’s lives that I never would have come in contact with.”
Looking back on his nearly quarter century as a permanent deacon, Mignogna, who came to Houston from Pennsylvania in 1979 with his young family for the economic opportunities, seems conflicted. By turns, he conveys the impression of pride in his mission work, but dissatisfaction in not doing more. He said he’s learned over the years to say “no” on occasion, but still has a tendency to pack tight his schedule. Satisfied with his decision to become a deacon, he expressed regret that he didn’t spend more time with his family, which now includes seven grandchildren.
“Being a deacon, it’s better for the Church, but it’s hard on the family,” Mignogna said. “In the end I want them to say I was a good Christian man.”
Annette Baird writes from Texas.