By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — June 11 was a memorable day for Deacons Don Schmit and Dick Muraski. It was the 40th anniversary of their ordination to the Order of Permanent Deacons in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. The two deacons, surviving members of the first diaconate class in the diocese, have for 40 years, with their families, embraced their ministry in the everyday world much as St. Stephen did.
St. Stephen, considered the first deacon, was appointed with six others, by the Apostles to distribute food and aid to the community’s poor. What little is known of him is recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter six. For the better part of eight centuries following his martyrdom, the Order of Deacons was a strong apostolate. Then over the next 1,200 years, the permanent diaconate waned and almost disappeared. By 1900 the role of Catholic deacons had become solely a transitional step on the path to priestly ordination.
Restoring the Order became a hot topic during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In June 1967, Pope Paul VI began restoration of the Permanent Diaconate, as the Council had suggested. His apostolic letter, the “Sacred Order of the Diaconate,” allowed countries who wished to restore the Order to do so. In 1968 the U.S. Bishops Conference requested restoration of the permanent diaconate and the following year, the first diaconate classes in the Archdioceses of Washington and Baltimore and the Diocese of Richmond were in formation. Those first classes were ordained in 1971.
That same year the first diaconate class in this diocese was formed.
That first class was comprised of seven men, Deacon Dwayne Katzer, diocesan Director of the Diaconate, said, reminiscent of the calling of those first deacons.
The seven men — Richard J. Muraski; Donald Schmit; Robert Miller; Louis Falcon; Antonio Sandoval; Vincent O’Flaherty, Jr., and George Kopp — began a two-year formation program at Rockhurst University and were then ordained by Bishop Charles Helmsing at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception June 11, 1973.
Deacon Don Schmit and his wife Jenny just celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.
“I’m 89 years a person, 65 a husband, 63 a father and 40 a deacon,” he said. The couple raised five children, four of whom are still living.
Relaxing in his recliner in the living room, he recalled his ministry’s beginnings as a charismatic movement leader.
“The first charismatic prayer meeting in this area,” he recalled, “was started in this living room around 1970. Jenny and I had heard about the charismatic renewal movement and wanted to learn more. Three of us went to the Evangelistic Center on Truman Road to hear a priest speak about it and had a religious experience. The pastor laid his hands on our heads and we prayed. We’ve never been the same.”
He was working for the IRS and the couple was raising four sons and one daughter. They bought a house in St. Elizabeth parish and their children attended the parish school. Don continued his involvement with the charismatic movement.
Msgr. Fiedler asked Don to consider becoming an ordained deacon in the first class of this diocese. The first course began the same night as a charismatic prayer meeting at the Schmit’s house. “The group prayed and sent me to class,” Deacon Don recalled.
After two years of study under Msgr. Fiedler, then head of the diocesan Diaconate office, and two Rockhurst University Jesuits, Don was ordained by Bishop Helmsing, who assigned the new deacon to the Office of Renewal of Prayer in the diocese.
“Bishop Helmsing was like a father to me,” Don said, “he guided me in my assignment.”
Renewal and prayer were movements that caught fire throughout the U.S. about this time. Deacon Don recalled conversions and healing in his living room and people who drove 50, 75 even 100 miles to attend the Tuesday evening meetings. “At one meeting there were so many people that the floors squeaked afterwards,” he said with a chuckle.
Almost from the start, he was so busy with his ministry with the Charismatic Renewal, that it took him a little time to recognize his diaconate ministry. He had been trained to assist at Mass, which he quickly found to be a privilege. Deacon Don also taught Baptismal and Marriage Preparation classes at St. Elizabeth.
As time passed, divisions occurred in the prayer group. Ultimately, the stress grew to be too much; by the end of 1977, he and Jenny dropped out of the Charismatic movement.
Don was reassigned to parish work at St. Elizabeth around that time. He headed the marriage preparation program in the parish for many years. He was also a much-sought-after weekend speaker, traveling all over the region to talk about prayer and healing.
His travels cut into time with Jenny and the kids; in 1979, Don retired from the IRS to devote full time to his parish work.
Under the pastorate of Father Richard Carney, weekly prayer meetings were held in the chapel at St. Elizabeth for the parish staff. “There was Taize music and prayer sharing,” Don said. “It was wonderful. Father Carney was very good at supporting prayer groups.”
Over the years, Deacon Don “retired” several times, always called back to parish work, then in 2011 he broke both ankles in an accident and finally, officially, retired.
Jenny, who for the past 40 years has supported and stood with her husband in his ministry, looked back on those years as her ministry also.
“Don’s work brought our family closer together in many ways,” she said. “Certainly there was a lot more prayer. I think the kids really are proud of him, which makes me proud of them, and that’s a good thing.”
She said her husband baptized a number of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “You walked your daughter down the aisle on her wedding day, in your vestments. You married several of your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. You taught RCIA and adult education classes and trained Eucharistic ministers,” she reminded him.
Deacon Don and Jenny Schmit love spending time with their four living children — their son David passed away during the 2002 ice storm. “We have 8 grandchildren,” Jenny said, “and 9 living great grandchildren, we lost one. All our kids are so good to us.”
Don: “Jenny is the most gentle, loving person I’ve ever met,” he said. “Without her I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, have done any of this. Married 65 years, and still in love!”
A few days later and a couple of miles away, Deacon Dick and Beattie Muraski sat on their front porch, enjoying breakfast while chatting and recalling the 40 years of Dick’s ministry.
He was ordained in 1973, but his vocation in lay ministry began long before that.
In the early 1960s, he had earned a master’s degree in applied theology from the California Institute of Lay Theology at the University of San Francisco.
Back then, Dick said, lay theologians were trained to be “convert-makers.” Before pursing his career in ministry, Dick worked with his brother in an electrical contracting business.
A high school retreat had started him thinking about his vocation. The priest leading the retreat suggested that the teenage boys start praying for their future wives. So Dick began praying for his wife, whoever she would be, while still in high school.
The loss of a football scholarship at Notre Dame, his education at St. Norbert College interrupted by a typographical error that got him drafted into the army during the Korean War, a “Dear John” letter from his girlfriend — those setbacks did not stop Dick’s prayers for his future wife.
While stationed at Fort Knox, the soldier met a girl at a tavern/dance hall near Louisville. Dick and Beattie Owens’ courtship was filled with the usual dates and, they prayed together. Dick gave Beattie her engagement ring after they attended a novena. Eight children, 25 grandchildren, two great-granddaughters and more than 50 years later, they still pray together every day.
The Muraskis moved to Kansas City in 1964. With Msgrs. Richard J. Schumacher, then-pastor of St. Elizabeth Parish, and Arthur Tighe, then-pastor of Visitation, the new lay theologian worked to establish the diocesan Catholic Information Services program. The program was designed to help adults prepare for the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation. During that time, Dick also worked part-time at both parishes in their lay activities offices.
Dick and Beattie became interested in the Christian Family Movement when they realized they wanted “something besides marriage, children, making money and having a good time.” The Muraskis volunteered in Georgia for three summers, helping establish Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes in Claxton, and with a grant from the Catholic Church Extension Society, helped build a church and rectory.
Beattie recalled discussions of how great it would be “if we could work full time for the Church and still feed the kids.” They contacted several missionary groups, but were “politely turned down when we told them we had five kids!”
When Bishop Helmsing reinstated the Permanent Diaconate in 1971, Msgr. Tighe suggested Dick Muraski as a candidate for the first class.
After his ordination, “Deacon Dick” was assigned to work at the Chancery as coordinator of marriage and family life. “Dick traveled all over the diocese to develop this ministry,” Beattie said and Dick added, “I basically taught people who were going to teach other people about marriage and families.”
The next decade was a busy one. In 1976 he was elected regional representative to the National Commission on Marriage and Family Life.
In the early 1980s, he helped devise and develop Prepare II, the sacramental marriage preparation program for engaged couples.
He also worked on other marriage and family life programs, including marriage enrichment, and with Beattie, encouraging and promoting natural family planning.
“I think we were about the only couple in the diocese who felt comfortable talking about our sexuality,” Beattie said. “Interestingly, at that time there was more interest in natural family planning in Kansas than in Missouri.”
Dick resigned from the diocesan Family Life Office June 1, 1983. He later served on the Board of Directors for the Natural Family Planning Organization of Greater Kansas City, and he and Beattie were active as instructors.
He served for a time at Nativity Parish in Independence, then at St. Augustine’s (now Church of the Holy Martyrs).
Dick’s last parish assignment was at Our Lady of Lourdes in Raytown. He retired from “active duty” June 30, 1998. He designed a card for friends and acquaintances that simply stated, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God. I have joy.”
He has spent time “learning the ministry of grandparenting,” praying and enjoying life with Beattie. Their kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are a great legacy.
Having the “privilege of the altar” to baptize, witness marriages and give homilies was “a great gift,” Deacon Dick said. Ordination allowed him to experience sacramental grace, grace he also experienced in his marriage and with his children and 21 grandchildren.
Beattie added that they had prayed for a place that would accept large families. “We found Visitation and St. Elizabeth parishes, and the ministry of the Permanent Deacon. Our prayers were answered long ago.”
“We are so blessed,” Dick said. “God takes care of those who want to serve him.”
Deacon Schmit and Deacon Muraski and their wives were recognized at Mass on June 16 at St. Elizabeth, followed by a reception.