The term deacon stems from the Greek word “diakonos,” which means servant.
And, if dictionaries had photographs, you might see Roberto Fuentes’ face next to the definition.
He thrives on helping people.
“God put this desire to serve others into my heart,” he said.
After 30 years at J.I. Case, a manufacturer of farm and construction equipment, Deacon Fuentes retired in 1996 and entered the diaconate formation program; he was ordained in 2002. Although he had been serving the church for many years as a lay member, he felt drawn to a religious vocation.
After a lengthy spiritual search, Deacon Fuentes found his calling as a permanent deacon in the Milwaukee Archdiocese. The Racine resident has been on staff at Cristo Rey Parish for the past 10 years, and was recently assigned to assist at St. Patrick Parish, both in Racine.
Not only does he work at both parishes, he helped build the Hispanic ministry under the direction of Pedro Martinez, who retired in 2009 after 26 years as coordinator of Hispanic pastoral services for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
“I worked with him for more than 20 years,” said Deacon Fuentes. “I was sent as a Hispanic delegate to the diocese on the regional level and then chosen from the regional to the national level Hispanic conference.”
He also has a passion for prison ministry and serves the inmates as chaplain at the Racine Correctional Institution and county jail. Since his ordination, more doors have opened for him and allowed for additional service to the community.
“Since 1961, I was doing what I could to volunteer at Cristo Rey and with the Hispanic ministry,” said the 67-year-old. “At first I didn’t think I needed to be a deacon because I was already in service to the community, but I wasn’t able to assist at Mass. What really got my attention was when I began helping to organize the prison ministry. I saw the need because I wanted to have a eucharistic celebration with them, and I had to be a deacon to do that.”
While he is comfortable among the inmates now, in 1989, when he began his prison ministry, the uncertainties were a bit daunting.
“I was supposed to go and assist another priest or deacon, but no one wanted to go, so I found a couple trying to get into ministry and was supposed to meet them at the prison early one morning,” said Deacon Fuentes. “Well, they didn’t show up because the wife decided she didn’t want to do it. I wasn’t happy!”
After returning home, his wife Lorenza suggested that, due to the roadblocks, perhaps the ministry was not to be. But Deacon Fuentes would not be discouraged, as he felt that God wanted him to minister to the incarcerated.
“I talked to my priest about it and he said to be patient, that he would try to find someone, but that I couldn’t go by myself,” he explained. “I said, ‘I am not going by myself; I have somebody who is going with me.’ My priest wanted to know who that was because he was going to get in touch with him. I said, ‘His name is Jesus and he will be going with me and the people will meet him.’ Finally, after a bit of talking back and forth, he told me I could go.”
With trepidation, Deacon Fuentes visited the prison, unsure what he was going to do .or offer to the inmates. At the first meeting, just one man attended the service.
“I sat down and read Scripture and prayed with him,” he said. “The next week, he brought three friends and then the next week, 23 men came to the service.”
The services became so popular that Deacon Fuentes sought volunteers from local parishes, a Dominican sister from the Siena Center and others from Burlington, Waterford and Racine.
“They came with me for a year, and helped me a lot,” he said. “I had two volunteers for a while, but one moved, so I have one, Dean Barbian, from St. Paul Parish, who helps me every Sunday, and another lady is just starting up. We divide the group into two small groups – Dean takes the English-speaking inmates, and I take the Spanish-speaking ones for a prayer service and then we have a combined eucharistic celebration.”
In addition to serving the parish, prison and jail, Deacon Fuentes brings Communion to the homebound, serves as a spiritual guide to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and is a member of the Faith Formation, Liturgy and Finance Committees at Cristo Rey. He is also involved in the Racine Interfaith Coalition and was nominated by the mayor to form a commission on immigration.
With a schedule that includes weddings, baptisms, quinceañeras, and funerals, it would be easy to expect that he would grow weary with the ongoing service. But serving God and watching the changes, especially among the inmates, seems to energize the father of three, grandfather to 10 and great-grandfather to seven.
“I always thank the men for bringing me along with them and searching and staying close to God – it brings me closer to God. I could not do this without the support of Lorenza and my family,” he said. “My wife is so patient with me. Sometimes I get involved so much and spend too much time outside my home, but she is understanding and always gives me support and the rest of the family is the same.”
If Deacon Fuentes could change one aspect of his ministry, it would be to encourage more Spanish-speaking men to consider the diaconate program.
“There is such a great need, especially in this diocese,” he said. “We have huge growth of Hispanic Catholics in this area. It is very rewarding to be a deacon. I thank God and bless him every day for giving me the opportunity to serve him. I have always felt called to serve and try to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”