Day by day over the last month of Dcn. Mike Chmielewski’s time at the Mary Mother of the Church Pastoral Center, a string of yellow notes grew longer and longer on the frame of his office door.
The slips of construction contained words of encouragement and congratulations from his children and grandchildren.
“What do you call a person who is happy on Monday?” “Retired.”
“Retire from work, but not from life.”
“The worst thing about retirement is you never get a day off.”
“Let’s go to Disneyland.”
OK, that last may have been more of a wish than actually encouraging.
Dcn. Chmielewski, who retired as the Director of Deacon Services for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee on Feb. 3 after seven years in the role, said it was touching to clip off one of the notes every day and see the messages.
He came to the archdiocese in December 2015 after working as a social worker and therapist at the Carmelite Home for Boys from 1975-2015.
“I was looking to transition off that,” said Dcn. Chmielewski, who turned 70 in June. “It was time to hand off that kind of work to a younger person.”
His predecessor, Dcn. Dave Zimbrick, had held the role for 17 years before retiring. Dcn. Chmielewski was on deacon senate at the time and was planning a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He asked Dcn. Zimbrick if the job posted while he was away to speak to someone at the archdiocese on his behalf.
On Dcn. Chmielewski’s first night in Jerusalem, the job posted and he corresponded by email with personnel in the human resources department before he returned home.
“The position was interesting in that it was a deacon position, and it would fit right into what I thought were some of my skills of relationship building and connecting with people,” Dcn. Chmielewski said. “I had been very active in the Church at the parish level and other levels for a long time and I knew some people.”
In an ironic twist, his retirement was probably delayed a few weeks because his replacement — Dcn. Jim Starke of St. Boniface in Germantown — was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January.
Part of his role was keeping his finger on the pulse of a community that includes approximately 225 active deacons, senior deacons, retired deacons and widows.
“When I started this job, I realized there was a lot I needed to learn, and a lot of people I needed to connect with,” Dcn. Chmielewski said. “My first focus was to get out and talk to the guys and get to know the guys. I did a lot of breakfasts and lunches. I went to district meetings where there were whole groups of them there. It’s a large area to cover. I found it to be quite a challenge, but it was walking with the guys, walking with the families, being connected with Church activities. I enjoyed what I did and made a lot of good relationships.”
Dcn. Chmielewski said the most rewarding part of the job was getting to know his fellow deacons and their families on a deeper level.
“These guys have let me into their lives in some of the most intimate times of their lives,” Dcn. Chmielewski said. “I’ve walked with them while they’re dying, I’ve walked with them while their wives are dying or after their wives have died, or with the wives after the deacon has died. It’s just been overwhelming at times, how people are so open to that connection.”
He also said he enjoyed the excitement of welcoming new deacons into the fold right after they are ordained.
“They’re very excited about what they’re starting, and they’re entering into a special point in their life,” Dcn. Chmielewski said.
He said his favorite memory of his term in deacon services was the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the return of the permanent diaconate to the Church in 2018 on the Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr and first deacon. There were four bishops and six members of the original deacon class in Milwaukee, along with Dcn. Frank Pemper (a member of the original class) and his son, Dcn. Steve Pemper, on the altar.
“That was awesome,” Dcn. Chmielewski said. “It was just a wonderful gathering of the deacons and just such a nice reflection of where we started, what we’ve built on and where we are now.”
In addition to spending more time with his wife, Mary, and children and grandchildren in retirement, Dcn. Chmielewski intends to continue as an active deacon at Holy Apostles in New Berlin.
Starke is coming into the position after serving as president of the deacon senate. Dcn. Chmielewski had some advice for him.
“Come in to the position with an open heart and open arms, with the true diaconal spirit of being willing to listen, to be open to the movements of the Spirit, to embrace the diversity of our community, to embrace the gifts of our community. I think he’s got those gifts and he’ll do great.”