DEACON LEADS NORTH ALBANY CHURCH TO CHANGE

KATHERINE McCARTHY Special to the Times Union
Section: LIFE & LEISURE,  Page: C1

Date: Monday, June 7, 1999

Residents of North Albany will tell you that there are three cornerstones to their part of the world: the Irish-American group known as the Limericks, the American Legion Hall and Sacred Heart Church.


North Albany is also a changing neighborhood, as many of its residents move to different parts of the Capital Region and new ethnic groups and immigrants move in. The blend of old and new is manifested in Sacred Heart Church, which is adapting to the present as it continues to anchor the community. On Friday, the 250 families of Sacred Heart will celebrate their 125th anniversary. That celebration will be led not by a priest, but by William Gorman, an ordained deacon who has been married for 35 years and has been Sacred Heart's pastor since last September. Gorman's presence is a sign of the times, as the Roman Catholic church faces a growing shortage of priests, and Gorman's role as the first parish life minister in a city church may well make him a model for the future.


``An open secret in this diocese and across the country is that there's a shortage of ordained priests, who have been the backbone of providing ministry to people,'' explained Howard Hubbard, bishop of the Albany diocese.


``In light of this shortage, we in the diocese began a planning process about a decade ago, addressing the issue of how we can continue to maintain parishes if we don't have enough priests,'' Hubbard said. ``We created criteria for vital and viable parish communities, engaging every parish in the diocese to look at how they will continue their life if they don't have a priest to serve them. When a parish becomes vacant, if we don't have an ordained minister to assign, we look at how else to maintain the parish.


``We've been preparing deacons, lay ministers and women religious to develop the background and skills necessary to be spiritual and pastoral ministers,'' Hubbard said. ``We have four to five women religious who have been appointed to that responsibility, but Bill is the first deacon to be appointed as parish life director.''


Sacraments


Hubbard pointed out that a deacon can witness weddings, baptize people and conduct funeral services, but a priest is needed to perform a Mass and other Roman Catholic sacraments like reconciliation and anointing of the sick.


The Rev. Kofi Ntsiful-Amissah of the black apostolate at St. George's is Sacred Heart's sacramental minister, and he celebrates the Eucharist at Masses. The Rev. John Diem Dinh Tran says a Vietnamese Mass at 11:30 a.m. on the first and second Sundays of the month.


Although he may not be able to celebrate his church's sacraments, Gorman considers his ordination as a deacon the answer to a call from God. ``The deaconate is a vocation,'' Gorman explained. ``It's the last step on the road to becoming a priest. I'm not a lay pastor, I'm a member of the clergy.''


Gorman said that the role of the deacon goes back to the time of the Apostles, who, after Jesus died, ordained people to serve others. ``The Apostles needed people to wait on tables,'' Gorman said.


Life of service


With graying hair and a tweed blazer, Gorman looks more like a university professor than a waiter. Yet he has spent a lifetime serving people, in his last 20 years as a deacon, and in his professional life. The Bronx native started out as a nurse, and went on to receive doctorates in psychology and theology. He is close to retiring from the Veterans Administration Hospital, where he is the director of the employee assistance program, Project Help, and chairman of the bioethics committee.


Gorman has worked in a few Albany parishes. ``I started at St. John's and St. Ann's,'' Gorman said, ``and was made chaplain of the port of Albany. Then I was in the parish ministry at St. James, until the bishop asked me to come here.'' Gorman and his wife, Joanne, have moved from their home in Guilderland to the parish house at Sacred Heart.


``This is a parish in transition,'' Gorman said. ``The neighborhood is now about 70 percent black, and 30 percent white, and about 30 percent Catholic. We're reaching out to everyone. Probably, in many cities, a parish like this might have closed. Bishop Hubbard felt strongly that this church will stay open, and we have this new model here.''


Links to past, future


Gorman is working hard to link the parish's traditions to its current needs. As a veteran, he has helped keep the ties to the American Legion post intact, including a regular veterans' Mass. As a health-care worker, he has a special interest in aging parishioners with specific health needs.


``One of my goals as a nurse was to start a parish nurse program, and I hired Sister Sara Kirsch, CSJ, who's a licensed practical nurse,'' Gorman said. ``We have a number of aging people, who can't go out, or won't, but they trust the parish. In the old days, the parish was the center of community life. We can look at our aging parishioners' spiritual and emotional needs, and make sure we meet their nursing needs, too.''


Gorman looks to the Mass as a way of drawing people into the parish. He is on the altar at every liturgical service, and always gives the homily, or sermon. He is both modest and candid about his ability as a preacher.


``I work very hard at preaching,'' Gorman said. ``It's my gift. The goal of preaching is to take the Gospel, break it open and give it to people to use in their everyday lives. I've been married almost 35 years, and I have four kids. I've done hospital work for the last 25 years, which has exposed me to everyday pain and suffering. I live my parishioners' lives.''


Gorman has also brought more contemporary music into Sacred Heart. ``As we journey, music has to adapt to the spirit of the people,'' he said.


Family model


Gorman has drawn on another aspect of his secular life as he runs the parish. ``My wife, Joanne, is my representative to the finance committee,'' Gorman said. ``For 35 years of marriage, Joanne has handled our finances. We're using a family model here at Sacred Heart now. In families, you have to look for bargains and sales, and Joanne has to bring that model to our work here.''


Joanne Gorman is as strong a presence in the parish as her husband, at the parish house, on the telephone, or checking on the food pantry. ``People call me The Boss,'' Joanne Gorman said with a smile.


Gorman has found most of the people at Sacred Heart supportive, although one parishioner told him early on that they would submit a petition to the bishop requesting a priest. ``He told me not to take it personally,'' Gorman said. ``People were worried about what they were going to lose.'' Hubbard said his office never received a petition.


``We have to look at reality,'' Gorman said. ``Many priests are old, and still working hard. Unless the celibacy issue is addressed, or there's an influx of vocations, this model works. This took a lot of courage and vision on the bishop's part.''


Hubbard downplayed any bravery at appointing Gorman as pastor of Sacred Heart. ``I'm grateful that Bill is the type of person he is and that he stepped in and assumed the responsibility with courage and humility,'' Hubbard said. ``I'm also grateful to the people of Sacred Heart for their willingness to accept someone other than an ordained priest.''


The changing crowd


At a Sunday Mass at Sacred Heart, there are always a number of Limericks jackets in the crowd, senior citizens, families, and the Vietnamese parishioners who came to Sacred Heart when their church, St. Joseph's, on Clinton and Central avenues, closed. Many of Albany's politicians hail from Sacred Heart, and still return there to worship.


Albany County Comptroller Mike Conners is one of them. He lives in Menands but is still an active member of the parish he grew up in, serving on Sacred Heart's finance committee, and as a lector during Sunday Mass.


``My great-grandfather settled in North Albany in the 1830s,'' Conners said. ``I went to School 20, and got older in North Albany. There's a spiritual connection for anyone who's ever been a parishioner there.''


Having a married man as a parish pastor may look like a step toward married men as priests, but Hubbard was cautious about that issue.


``Thirty years ago when we started ordaining deacons, people asked if this was a foot in the door to married clergy,'' Hubbard said. ``Thirty years later, we still don't have married clergy. We can't predicate the arrival of married priests on an ordained deacon being the administrator of a parish. Married clergy is something that needs to be considered, especially if celibacy becomes an impediment to celebrating the Eucharist.''


As for the possibility of women priests, Hubbard said, ``These issues have to be reviewed.''


To the future


For his part, Gorman looks to the positive. ``This is a big step,'' Gorman said. ``Here, it's working, because of people like Father Kofi, and a lot of goodness. There are wondrous damn things that can happen here. I can preach the Gospel, but I see it lived out around me.''


As an example, Gorman pointed out this spring's Irish brunch, a sellout. ``Some of our older people came back, and we had to tell them there weren't any seats available. Three younger women with tickets were in line behind them, and gave the older women their tickets. I said, `You didn't have to do that,' and they answered, `Yes, we did.'