“The phone was ringing off the hook,” recalled the late Fr. Paul Esser, who remembered the first response to a call for men to become permanent deacons. Esser had been appointed the first director of the Permanent Diaconate program in October 1973, leaving behind the leadership of St. Joseph High School in Kenosha.

In that first diaconate class were 58 men. Their classes began in January 1974 at St. Francis de Sales Seminary. Nearly every other Saturday, they put in long days of study, lectures and discussions. The first group of permanent deacons, 31 in all, were ordained in a historic ceremony on the feast of St. Stephen, deacon and martyr, Dec. 26, 1975. This is how it began in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

The permanent diaconate was an outflow of years of scholarship and the discussions of ministry at Vatican II (especially Lumen Gentium). The motu proprio of Blessed Paul VI, Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (June 1967), formally restored the ancient office of deacon in the Latin Rite (long restricted to clerics destined for priestly ordination) and opened it to married men. Many dioceses around the country rapidly moved forward with hastily assembled programs and lots of eager candidates: Washington, D.C.; New York; Des Moines, Iowa; and Chicago.

In late 1971, at the urging of the Priest Council, Archbishop William E. Cousins began to plan for a permanent diaconate in Milwaukee. He directed Fr. Robert Schneider, the vocation director for the archdiocese, to study the issue and present a plan for the creation of a diaconal program. Schneider read the relevant documents, studied the programs of dioceses where this had begun, and prepared a proposal that Archbishop Cousins and the Priest Council approved just before Christmas 1972

In choosing Esser to lead the program, Cousins found a capable organizer and a respected fellow priest. Esser, ordained in 1957, had been active in educational ministry, serving at Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha as a guidance counselor and at Messmer and St. Joseph’s, Kenosha, high schools as principal. He would later become pastor of St. Paul Church in Racine. Fr. Esser’s organizational gifts and sound judgment were a blessing to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Esser carefully studied the permanent diaconate of other dioceses, learning from the strengths and weaknesses of their programs. He was transferred to St. Francis de Sales Seminary, which became his base of operations, and the seminary faculty provided instructors for the Saturday courses. From the moment the program began Jan. 26, 1974, Esser continually observed, refined and adjusted it to meet the needs of the candidates. Course work included scripture, moral theology, Christology, liturgy and pastoral counseling. Field trips to pastoral sites, e.g., the Milwaukee’s House of Peace (founded by Br. Booker Ashe, OFM, Cap.) and the Guadalupe Center, encouraged the candidates to encounter the diversity of the archdiocese and the needs of ministry. Each candidate was urged to find and regularly consult a spiritual director. Local pastors were also called on to monitor the progress of the aspiring deacon and provide opportunities for ministry. Esser strongly insisted that each deacon was to enter into a formal relationship with the pastor and the parish community — no deacon was to be a “lone ranger” or an independent operator.  To integrate the wives of the candidates into the diaconal ministry, Esser brought on Sr. Joanne Meyer, OSF, who met the wives in their homes and provided retreats and mini-study days for them. Fr. John Rice later joined the program as well.

The “shake-down” cruise of this new program surfaced lots of questions. Some wondered what happened to women deacons. Others, exhausted with the long days of study, questioned the pedagogical wisdom of day-long instruction. Instructors themselves, used to teaching younger seminarians, had to learn how to adapt their lessons to this type of adult learner.

The first deacons did not have permission to preach. Esser moved on this quickly, providing a post-ordination program to prepare deacons to preach at Mass. Esser, Meyer and Rice planned, listened, adapted and carefully monitored the progress of the candidates. Early on, they were concerned that candidates be drawn from the diversity of social and ethnic groups that made up the mosaic of archdiocesan life: African Americans, Latinos and Hmong among others. These early days established a firm foundation for the current diaconal program. Subsequent directors Fathers Thomas Orth and Joseph Strenski, and lay man Timothy Charek built on this foundation. From the first class ordained Dec. 26, 1975, to the most recent group ordained Sept. 8, the archdiocese continues to “select … reputable men, filled with the Spirit and Wisdom.” (Acts 6:3).