Inaugural permanent deacon reflects on his ministry

| Debbie Musser | September 30, 2020 | 0 Comments

Deacon Tom Kasbohm talks with great-grandchildren Kierra, left, and Kerry Simpson. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

In August 1969, 10 men from across the U.S. began their journey at St. John’s Seminary in Collegeville to become permanent deacons — at the site of the first permanent diaconate study center in the country.

The last surviving member of that inaugural class of candidates, Deacon Tom Kasbohm of Brooklyn Center — at the time a husband, father of 10 and full-time civil service employee — recalls that unique experience.

“I was grateful, hopeful and excited that this was the beginning of a new era, where there would be a new and deeper way to serve the people of the Catholic Church,” said Deacon Kasbohm, 87, who served as a permanent deacon for more than 50 years, beginning in Chicago and then in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “But I also felt a great responsibility, participating in bringing back the diaconate.”

“Today for me, the significance of being the last member of that first class is minor; continuing to bring God’s word to other people is the major significance,” he said. “If I had the opportunity to serve in this way again for another 50 years, I would in a heartbeat.”

Permanent deacons existed in the early centuries of the Catholic Church. Eventually, the permanent diaconate was replaced by transitional deacons, men on their way to the priesthood.

In 1967, after the Second Vatican Council, Pope St. Paul VI re-established the permanent diaconate, allowing both single and married men to be ordained to the ministry; the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (forerunner to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) gave its approval for the U.S. in 1969.

“At the time, some people thought that restoring permanent deacons was done because of the shortage of priests,” Deacon Kasbohm said. “But deacons can’t say Mass or hear confessions. The need was for deacons to be with the people and minister in a variety of ways. That’s the special role deacons have — serving.”

A graduate of DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis, Deacon Kasbohm earned a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Minnesota in 1954, followed by a master’s degree in education administration from Roosevelt University in Chicago. After serving in the Air Force as a pilot and instructor pilot, he began a career in civil service in Chicago as an education specialist for the Navy, covering a five-state area.

“As a Navy recruiter, I visited many high schools and colleges, giving qualification exams to students and meeting with their parents,” he said. All the while, he and his wife, Joan, were busy raising a young family, which grew to five daughters and five sons.

His call to become a deacon is a vivid memory. “I was in the Great Lakes Naval Hospital outside of Chicago, recovering from a multiple sclerosis attack, when the Navy chaplain, Capt. John O’Connor – who later became Archbishop of New York and then Cardinal O’Connor – brought me Communion and left a pamphlet outlining the requirements to become a deacon in the U.S.,” Deacon Kasbohm said.

“I had been serving the Church all my life; I was an altar boy, involved in DeLaSalle’s Catholic Action youth group, active in parish life teaching Sunday school, helping to find adoptive homes for orphaned children in Europe and other things, but I wanted to do more,” he said.

“When I read the diaconate pamphlet, I felt this was the direction I was meant to go in, but I told Capt. O’Connor that I did not meet the requirements, as it said you have to be in perfect health, and I am in a Navy hospital with a diagnosis of MS,” he said. “He placed his fingers firmly on my nose and said, ‘You let God decide that.’”

With the support and encouragement of his wife, Deacon Kasbohm followed his calling at age 36, joining the inaugural permanent deacon class of 10 men at St. John’s Seminary. The program, developed by St. John’s University faculty and Benedictine monks, consisted of summer courses in Scripture, pastoral counseling, Church theology and preaching, with ongoing communication and support from priest mentors.

Deacon Kasbohm completed his diaconate training at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois. Following his ordination in 1972, he served in Chicago before returning to the Twin Cities, where his ministry included assignments at Nativity of Mary in Bloomington; St. Thomas, Resurrection (merged with St. Kevin in 1991 and renamed Our Lady of Peace) and the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis; and Mary, Mother of the Church in Burnsville.

He recalls that at the start, there was confusion about what the deacon role was and a lack of acceptance by some.

“I wanted to ensure that anything I did reflected positively on the Church, and would contribute to the future success of this role,” he said. “I trusted that God was in control, not me, and if this was his will, I just had to do my part and it would all work out for the good.”

Deacon Kasbohm served in a variety of parish roles. “Each parish had a different need,” he said. “It could be doing baptisms, funerals, marriages, homilies, bringing sacraments to people, being the faith formation coordinator, teaching at the parish school or serving as marriage preparation coordinator — at the Basilica we had 150 marriages a year.”

Deacon Joe Schramer, 87, of Apple Valley, served with Deacon Kasbohm at Mary, Mother of the Church in the early 1990s. “Tom seemed to be involved in just about everything there, including a ministry of reaching out to Hmong refugees to help them get settled,” Deacon Schramer said. “And when he moved into St. Therese of New Hope, their chaplain had him involved in ministry there as well.”

Deacon Kasbohm lived at St. Therese, a senior living and care facility, from 2014 until he needed treatment at a hospital in late August. He has been rehabilitating since early September at the home of his daughter, Terri Kasbohm, 65, in Brooklyn Center. A member of St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis, Terri Kasbohm has shared the online Mass from that parish with her father. His family has expanded to include 25 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

“Growing up, Dad was always bigger than life, and as a deacon, very deeply rooted in values that are timeless, about helping people,” Terri Kasbohm said. “I was very enchanted and quite deeply touched with Dad’s faith and felt it myself, and he would extend God’s love in a human way.”

Terri Kasbohm’s daughter and her family are also living in her home, so that’s a houseful of four generations, all under one roof. Deacon Kasbohm serves in his role as the spiritual leader.

“Watching Dad teach his great-grandchildren about their faith is absolutely a gift for us,” said Terri Kasbohm. “Just an unbelievable gift.”

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