During his 31 years as a deacon, Deacon David Zimprich has often been asked, “How can you be a policeman and a deacon?”

Deacon David Zimprich, seated at his desk in the Cousins Center, on Dec. 15, is retiring and leaving his position as associate director for deacon services this week. After a career in law enforcement, he served in the position with the archdiocese for 17 years. (Catholic Herald photos by Maryangela Layman Román)He would reply, “Well, they’re both service. You’re serving people. You don’t go out on a job to shoot people; you go to help people at their worst time – they’ve been robbed, beat up, in a car accident, their home broken into. Being a deacon is the same thing; you’re there to serve and help people.”

The last 14 of his 31 years with the Milwaukee Police Department overlapped the first 14 years of his diaconal ministry at St. Bernadette, Milwaukee, and St. Anthony, Menomonee Falls. When he retired from the force as a lieutenant in 1998, he became the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s associate director for deacon services.

In a Dec. 10 interview with the Catholic Herald, a week before his retirement, Deacon Zimprich recalled that when he was hired, the three-day-a-week position “had no real job description except, ‘Take care of the deacons.’”

Communication is main priority

His first priority was establishing better communication among the more than 200 deacons then

Director’s focus on communication, support and promotion

Deacon Michael Chmielewski, successor to Deacon David Zimprich as associate director for deacon services, had only been at his new job three days when he spoke to the Catholic Herald Dec. 10, but he already knew to what areas he will devote his time.

“Three words come to mind – communication, support and promotion,” he said.

Noting that he would build upon the communication that his predecessor had with the Catholic community, Deacon Chmielewski said improving awareness of the diaconate is important.

“There are still many, many Catholics that don’t understand and know what deacons do and who they are, and probably more so they don’t know who they are than what they do,” he said, noting they see deacons at the altar, but might not know they are ordained clergy.

Deacon Zimprich added, “That’s important. A lot of people still think we’re ‘lay deacons.’ They don’t understand we’re ordained.”

He said one misunderstanding is that people think deacons are paid.

“They don’t realize we don’t get anything. We get money to go on a retreat every year and we get money for continuing education. That’s it,” Deacon Zimprich said.

He recalled that when the first deacons were ordained in 1975, “Most priests wanted nothing to do with them … there was a whole period of learning and educating and re-educating.”

Deacon Zimprich said that in addition to the liturgical and sacramental ministries performed by deacons, they have also developed other ministries, including those at jails and truck stops.

“We started the Holy Hour for Life. This will be our sixth year. It’s only the deacons that do it every year on the eve (Jan. 21) of Roe v. Wade, but it’s not an abortion issue; this is life – womb to tomb,” he said. “And it took a long time for the priests to understand that before they let us do it. That’s something deacons started and it’s taken off.”

Deacon Chmielewski, ordained in 2009, sees the support piece of his work including deacons, their wives and families.

“I want to let them know there’s this collegiality, brotherhood, of support,” he said. During the next six months, he plans to attend deacon district meetings. “I want to be able to provide some support for them and let them know they’re not on an island. You want to keep them connected and involved.”

As for promoting the diaconate, Deacon Chmielewski wants to build upon the recent set of posters that depicted deacons in their ministries and in their work lives.   

“I would like to work with (Deacon) John Ebel and Manuel Maldonado in the diaconate formation office, the archbishop and the clergy vocation people in promoting the diaconate,” he said. “You hear about Fr. Luke Strand and the posters of the seminarians. There’s a promotion we could make for the diaconate.”

Deacon Chmielewski, 63, who recently retired after 41 years as a social worker and therapist at the Carmelite Home for Boys, will continue his diaconal ministry at Holy Apostles Parish, New Berlin, where he preaches once a month, does baptismal preparation and afternoon baptisms monthly, coordinates the FOCCUS program and does marriage preparation, and leads funeral vigils.

He and his wife, Mary, have four children, six grandchildren and two on the way.

serving in the archdiocese.

“The very first project was the biggest – lack of communication,” Deacon Zimprich said. “Being a deacon, being out in the field, I had no idea what was going on with the diaconate in the archdiocese. Nor did I know what was going on with my brother deacons or their families.”

He established computer contact with all of the deacons, allowing him to provide information regarding liturgical questions, offer recommendations about books or educational opportunities related to their ministry, keep them informed about deacon retreats and days of recollection, and let them know if a deacon had been hospitalized.

Deacon Zimprich’s other priority was the deacons’ wives.

“I felt we should do more for the wives. Exactly what that meant I didn’t know, but I felt we needed more programming outside of formation to offer to the wives,” he said. “There’s a group that puts together the wives’ retreat every year, days of recollection, and they do a good job.”

Deacon Zimprich’s work included attending district meetings, as well as working with the deacons’ council, visiting deacons in the hospital and meeting with families when a deacon died.

In November 1999, Fr. Joseph Hornacek, archdiocesan vicar for clergy, asked Deacon Zimprich to add another element to his evolving job description: oversight of priests who had been involved in sexual abuse of children.

He noted that in 2002, when the clergy sexual abuse scandal was exposed throughout the country, “All of sudden we started getting more and more and more complaints and allegations (regarding sexual abuse of children) about priests. It was at this point I found that the investigations (in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee) were being conducted by a retired judge.”

Concerned that a judge would not necessarily know how to conduct investigative interviews – “You can interview someone and by asking the question one way you’ll get one answer, by asking it another way you can get whatever answer you want,” he said – Deacon Zimprich went to Barbara Anne Cusack, chancellor of the archdiocese, with a recommendation.

“When you’re involved in sexual assault you have to be really careful how you ask the questions. So I recommended that we hire some recently retired detectives from MPD that had worked in sexual assaults for years; they had that background. That’s what we did,” he said of the three former detectives that did the archdiocese’s investigations for a number of years.

Deacon Zimprich said that as more allegations surfaced, he was overseeing almost all of the priests against whom those allegations of sexual abuse of a minor had been raised.

“We went to an oversight program because you can’t monitor them 24/7,” he said.

Deacon Zimprich recalled that in 2002, then-Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan asked him to set up two “Community Response to Clergy Sexual Abuse” sessions at which the public shared their stories of being assaulted by priests. The sessions were held in October at the Midwest Express Center.

“I was involved in setting it up and providing security for him,” he said. “(Deacon) Dean Collins (of the MPD) and I sat up in front; we were armed and we had plainclothes guys there because we didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Lots of hours, lots of miles

Deacon Zimprich also drove the archbishop to meetings with victims.

“He would go into a room to meet with people. I was outside, not listening, but I would be close by so that if I heard yelling or screaming, like a fight, then I was there and could come in and help the archbishop (if something needed to be done),” he said.

Deacon Zimprich referred to those years as “an interesting time,” but it was also a busy time – “full time plus,” he termed it – too busy to be contained within the three days a week for which he was hired.

“After 2002, 2003, this stuff was really coming in. I was doing investigations, I was doing oversight, I was working with the deacons. It was up to 40, 50, 60 hours a week,” he recalled, noting he received full-time status in 2007. “I was getting phone calls at home day and night from some of the priests – especially when they found out their names were going to be released.”

As for the miles, his 2009 Camry had more than 229,000 of them when he traded it in last week.

“Most of those were from this place (his archdiocesan work),” he said.

Role places stress on family

Deacon Zimprich recalled one situation in which he was at a parish where the priest, against whom there were allegations of sexual abuse of a minor, announced he was stepping back from ministry because his name was going to be released to the press the next day. There was a break in the meeting.

“I was walking around seeing if any of the tables had any questions, and lo and behold, there was one of my sisters-in-law and her daughter-in-law. And they looked at me, and they got up and walked out. And my wife’s family didn’t talk to me for over a year,” the deacon said.

He remembered them asking, “Why didn’t you tell us? My kids, both of them, were altar servers. What if something had happened? It would have been your fault. You should have told us. We’re your family. Who comes first?”

“I said, ‘I couldn’t. It was all confidential. It’s my job,’” he said. “Family functions were not always the best, but we’re beyond that now, thank God, and I married most of their kids and baptized most of them, we get together and we’re beyond that.”

While his investigative and oversight work increased, Deacon Zimprich was still responsible for his primary constituency: deacons.

“I still had all the deacons and their covenants, appointments and transfers, and incardinations and excardinations,” he said. “I do the quarterly newsletter (65 of them over the 17 years) and am the liaison with the Episcopal deacons. Just a lot of things inside and outside this building (Cousins Center).”

Retired – sort of

At 69, Deacon Zimprich is looking forward to retirement in order to spend more time with his wife of 50 years, Dody, and their two children and six grandchildren.

He will, however, continue to carry out his diaconal ministry at St. William and St. John Neumann parishes, Waukesha, functioning liturgically as well as doing baptisms, benedictions, weddings, wakes and committals.

He also trains and schedules eucharistic ministers from the four Waukesha parishes, as well as St. Anthony on the Lake, Pewaukee, and St. Charles, Hartland, who serve at Waukesha Memorial Hospital.

“There is an average of 60 Catholic patients in the hospital every day, and every day, every floor, every week is covered,” Deacon Zimprich said.

Calling himself “very, very blessed” to have been able to serve for more than 17 years, he said, “This has been super rewarding because so many of my brother deacons and their spouses have shared their personal stories with me, and trusted me with those stories and those issues. I count as a real blessing to have been able to do that – to earn that trust. I didn’t always have the answers but to be able to sit and listen was a blessing.”