Hundreds come out to honor Houlton Catholic deacon

3 weeks ago

HOULTON, Maine – Deacon Al Burleigh’s workday starts about 5 a.m., then there’s morning Mass and prayers and whatever the day might bring. And despite being retired, the 73-year-old works most days at the church. 

“I hang out at church all the time,” he said. 

Burleigh, the first Houlton permanent deacon, was ordained 20 years ago and on Sunday about 250 people came to a special recognition at St. Mary of the Visitation Catholic Church to honor and recognize his ordination anniversary and thank him for all he has done over the years.

“In 20 years he has made a tremendous difference in the lives of many people,” said Father Kevin Martin, pastor of St. Mary of the Visitation, Houlton, St. Agnes, Island Falls, and St. Paul’s Mission churches. “In general, his life radiates joy and peace and his love for people is obvious. He is a great advocate and a friend to so many people. He is just a wonderful man.”

For the past decade the ratio of priests to parishioners has been declining. Globally, there is one priest for every 3,373 Catholics,  according to the Vatican’s Central Office of Church Statistics. 

In many cases, deacons – there are about 50,000 globally – help fill those gaps. 

For Southern Aroostook County, Burleigh has done just that, making himself available to people in emergencies and for the day-to-day things that send people his way. 

St. Mary’s has two deacons, Burleigh and Deacon Ron Ouellette. 

“It has helped immensely having two deacons. It is a great blessing,” Martin said. “The beautiful thing about Deacon Al, he is available for emergencies and when people are dying at the hospital he responds.”

When Burleigh first got the call to serve as a deacon he and his wife were both teachers at Houlton High School. 

It was about 25 years ago that the pastor of St. Mary’s at the time asked Burleigh to fill out an application for the permanent Diaconate. 

“I didn’t even know what that meant,” Burleigh said, laughing. “So I took it home, looked at it and thought, I’ll fill it out because he asked me to and that will be the end of it.” 

Actually, it was the beginning. He was accepted into the intensive training regimen which included getting a masters degree in theology. 

Still, the scholarly rigors of the program were often a struggle.

Burleigh said when the directors of the program asked him how he was doing he said fine. Not believing him they asked his wife Sonja.

“She said, ‘I’ll tell you how he’s really doing, when he’s sitting on the couch he’s got all this research papers in front of him – I gave birth to three very large boys, it was a very painful process – but he ‘s in more pain than I was,’” he said, laughing. “It was really tough.” 

His classmates and his facilitators encouraged him and “by the grace of God,” he got through the program, he said. 

Most times deacons keep their paid jobs and they help the church as needed. Most times they do not get a paycheck from the church. At the time Burleigh and Sonja were both teachers at Houlton High School. But Sonja encouraged him to resign from teaching to work as a deacon, he said. 

Martin explained that before a deacon is ordained, the deacon’s wife must sign a form that is given to the diocesan bishop, confirming that she agrees to the demands on a deacon’s life and will allow the deacon to do what is required.

“Sonja is so very understanding,” Martin said. “She’s a prayer warrior, working to support Al in his service to all.”

Burleigh said that when he gets a middle of the night emergency call, Sonja gets up and lights a candle for the situation and prays for a good outcome. 

His ministry has taken him to serve people who are hungry, dying, getting married, baptizing babies, the list is as long as the numbers of people he has guided, supported or prayed with over the years. 

It’s a privilege and an honor to journey with these people, Burleigh said, adding that people who come from away to live with their children who get to know him, often ask him to travel to other states for their funerals.

“Your ministry goes with you no matter where you are,” he said. 

The key to his happiness? 

You have to love people, forgive them (even the ones that irk you), and not judge anyone. As you minister to people, they usually give you back more than you give to them and that gives him the courage to keep going again and again, Burleigh said. 

“The people are really special, what they did for me this weekend is very touching. I don’t really deserve it,” he said. “They want to say thank you, I guess.”