Deacon Allen Olson naturally turned to his strong faith and prayer life last year when he lost his teaching job of 19 years.
The 52-year-old member of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish, North Lake, was in his final months of formation to become a permanent deacon, and his spiritual life ran deeper than ever.
Nonetheless, it was a “miserable, depressing feeling” to be told last March that his contract as a music teacher in the New Berlin public schools would not be renewed due to budget tightening.
Because many schools are trimming music programs, Deacon Olson knew his future earning prospects were grim — so grim that he and his wife, Ellen, 55, prepared to sell the five-bedroom, 150-year-old farm house in which they had raised their family.
There were many changes in the six months following the March job news, but speak to the Olsons about it today and the word “blessing” is often heard.
“It turned out to be a blessing for us,” Ellen said in a recent interview at the couple’s residence in the Town of Merton.
‘Holy Spirit’ comes calling
One day in April, a friend phoned Deacon Olson and said, “This is the Holy Spirit calling.” The friend told him about job openings at St. Charles Catholic School in nearby Hartland – a 50 percent position teaching middle school religious education and a 40 percent position teaching music to all grades.
“I had never considered teaching religious education,” Deacon Olson said.
The friend advised him to apply for both jobs and to ask for a full-time position.
Deacon Allen was hired for that full-time job in June, and enjoyed a relaxing summer. “That was a big blessing right there, a huge blessing,” he said.
The couple had put their Town of Lisbon home on the market in the spring and sold it in three and a half months.
They stumbled upon a home to rent about two miles away in the Town of Merton.
“So many blessings,” Deacon Olson recalled.
September was a big month for the Olsons – Deacon Olson was ordained Sept. 8, about a week after the first day of school at St. Charles. Finally, about a week after ordination, the couple and their two youngest children moved to their new home.
“You’re looking at a happy camper now,” he said with a smile. “It all just fell into place. Nothing’s too big for God. We have really just learned to pray and put it into God’s hands and have faith.”
Faith journey begins as Lutheran
Deacon Olson’s faith journey to the Roman Catholic diaconate began with an upbringing in the Lutheran Church.
He grew up in Saylesville, which he describes as a “suburb” of Genesee Depot in Waukesha County. Deacon Olson was the second of four children, and graduated from Waukesha South High School. He met Ellen while attending the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha Center for 18 months, and he worked for his dad’s hardware business while attending Carroll College.
He and Ellen married in 1985 when Deacon Olson was a senior in college and she completed a nursing degree. Ellen, who grew up in Hartland, had two sons from a previous marriage, Luke, now 33, and Aaron, 31.
“Life was busy from the start,” Deacon Olson recalled.
Modestly noting, “God blessed me with a nice singing voice,” he said he completed a bachelor’s degree at Carroll in music performance as a tenor. He earned a master’s degree at UW-Whitewater where he was also awarded teaching certification.
The couple had two daughters in these years — Allison, 25, and Madeline, 24 — who were baptized as Catholics.
Catholicism grew on him
“I was a happy Lutheran,” Deacon Olson said.
But as he attended Mass with his family, Roman Catholicism grew on him, even though he was not looking to make a change.
“I liked everything I heard. There wasn’t anything about the Catholic Church I didn’t like,” he said.
He liked the idea of the Eucharist as the true presence of Christ; he liked the 2,000-year history of the church and he liked the saints.
By 1999, “I felt the Holy Spirit saying, ‘It’s time,’” Deacon Olson recalled.
He also wanted his whole family – which by then included two more children, Margaret, 19, and Peter, 17 – to be of one faith. He entered the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil at St. Clare, North Lake, in 2000, when Fr. Anthony McCarthy was the parish’s pastor.
“I always like to call them the von Trapp family,” said Fr. McCarthy, now retired, noting that the Olson family’s music gifts have strengthened the parish.
Camps are ‘booster shots’ for faith
After he became Catholic, Deacon Olson served the parish as an usher and eventually attended a parish-sponsored Group Workcamp Foundation mission trip with his then-teenaged daughter, Madeline. He enjoyed the service and getting to know other adults and youth in the parish so much that he took part in the mission trip seven consecutive years.
“I’d always come back saying I was jacked up from camp – a booster shot for my faith,” he recalled.
Parish member Jacynthia Shaw has headed the parish Christian Concerns Committee for about 15 years, and coordinates the mission trips.
At one post-mission trip gathering in 2003 or 2004, Shaw told Deacon Olson, “You’d make a good deacon.”
Why was he one of just a few men Shaw has ever approached about this?
“I just felt he had the calling. His kindness and his kind heart reaches beyond most people’s,” she said recently. “He’s done a great job leading our teens and showing them what it is to be Christ-like.”
Deacon Olson didn’t know what a deacon was because there had never been one at St. Clare, North Lake, which in 2006 would be merged with St. John Catholic Church in Monches to form Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish.
He and Ellen researched the role of deacons and spoke with deacons.
“They said, ‘Pray,’” Ellen recalled with a laugh, but they did not elaborate with details about the diaconate.
What’s a deacon?
The couple also consulted with their children, who also wondered, “What’s a deacon?”
“I think all of our first thought was, ‘What does this all entail?’” said their daughter, Madeline. “We couldn’t be more proud of him now.”
“They were all for it. So the support was there to go forth to see what God wanted me to do,” Deacon Olson said.
While some men say they were called to the diaconate, Deacon Olson said it was more like a push for him.
“I always describe it as God’s finger in the middle of my back,” he said, noting that every time he considered stepping away from the process, “God said no.”
Five years to ordination
Eventually, Deacon Olson made a formal application to the diaconate. The process was lengthy, including prayer, interviews, a psychological exam, gathering references, compiling a life history and much discernment. The archdiocese was revising the program, which led to some delays.
Ellen was at his side through that year of discernment and the year of aspirancy that followed because the archdiocese does not want the commitment to put a couple’s marriage at risk.
“This is a tag team. They will not accept you if your wife is not 100 percent in agreement,’’ Deacon Olson said. Wives are involved, but to a lesser degree, in the final three years of diaconate formation.
“We didn’t have a clue to what the demands were,” of the diaconate process. Deacon Olson was the third youngest of his “class” and some applicants had not written a paper in 35 years.
“At the time, it was somewhat of a shock,” he said.
Toward the end of the year of aspirancy, a board reviews everything a candidate has written, teacher comments and other available information. A married couple decides whether to continue the process. The review board had the final say on whether a candidate will be accepted to continue.
The Olsons continued the process for three more years, gaining approval after each year to continue Deacon Olson’s study.
Program leads to strong friendships
They bonded with the 11 men and their wives in the program.
“You literally have to bare your soul,” Deacon Olson said of the class discussions. “You come clean. You cannot reserve yourself. You cannot hold anything back.”
His class included a Harvard-educated lawyer, a truck driver, several engineers and a carpet shop owner.
“We made such wonderful friends with these people,” Ellen said. “The guys developed a wonderful camaraderie. They just held each other up.”
“I love each and every one of those guys,” Deacon Olson said.
Scattered throughout the Milwaukee Archdiocese, they try to get together twice a year. The wives are included because they got to know one another well, too.
Deacon Olson also found support in his extended Lutheran family, who offered not one negative comment.
“It was always a positive. My mother never questioned it at all,” he said, noting that in his family, it is positive if you attend a church, regardless of denomination — a philosophy he embraces for his own children.
“I just want them to praise God and have Christ in their heart.”
Fr. McCarthy also was encouraging and could see how Deacon Olson’s faith and teaching background would be assets in the diaconate.
“It’s kind of a gut feeling,” Fr. McCarthy said. “I was always kind of impressed with his preaching.”
Preaching was just one element of ministry that Deacon Olson practiced while studying for the diaconate. After getting experience in the parish serving in roles such as extraordinary minister of the Eucharist and lector, he became involved in ministry to the homebound.
“We are well-prepared,” Deacon Olson said.
Life as a deacon
After his ordination, Deacon Olson entered a one-year covenant with his parish. After the first year, it will be renewed every two years.
He pledged to devote 31 hours a month to his ministry, serving others by participating at Mass, performing baptisms requested outside of Mass, delivering homilies once a month, and visiting homebound parishioners and inmates at the Waukesha County jail. Other deacons might engage in other ministries, but most serve their parishes about 30 hours per month.
What does Deacon Olson like most about being a deacon?
“Serving people. That’s what a deacon is – a servant to Christ. I just love knowing I can bring Christ to others. I just feel humbled and honored that Christ would use me as an instrument to serve others – ‘I want you to do this for me.’”
Deacon Olson said deacons are one “vessel” through which the Holy Spirit and Christ can work.
“If we keep that at the center of our heart, we’ll be a good deacon. I give no credit to me,” he said.
He also hopes to be a good faith model to others, including his immediate and extended families.
“I hope and pray it helps their faith,” the deacon said.
How has the journey to the diaconate affected Deacon Olson’s faith?
“All 11 guys would say, ‘It just strengthens it. It solidifies it.’ You come out; you are very solid in your faith.”