By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
INDEPENDENCE —Deacon Tom Powell wasn’t ordained to win awards. But he won one anyway.
True to his calling to service, Deacon Powell wasn’t available in Jefferson City in October to receive his Citizenship Award — given to one person in each of Missouri’s four dioceses — during the annual Missouri Catholic Conference General Assembly.
“I was preaching that day,” Deacon Powell said. In other words, he was serving the people of St. Anthony Parish, still living out his call to the ordained service of which, this year, will number an even four decades.
And like all deacons, Deacon Powell will be quick to add that he is only the ordained half of a team. His wife, Lydia, has been with him every step of the way, even though she had two small children and another on the way when he was ordained to the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Chicago on May 24, 1975.
“The wife has to go through at least some of the classes and some of the meetings, and I had to sign a consent” to allow Deacon Powell to be ordained, Lydia Powell said.
“I felt he had a calling,” she said. “He always wanted to be out, helping people who were needy.”
Though technically “retired” at age 76, Deacon Powell said there really is no such thing as a retired deacon. He will continue to serve in whatever capacity he can as long as he is physically able.
Both Deacon Powell and Lydia grew up in the Kansas City area.
Deacon Powell was an Eagle Scout in Troop 221 at St. Mary Parish in Independence, and once thought he was called to the priesthood. He attended Rockhurst High School and College, then spent three years at Conception Seminary College before discerning that the priesthood was not what God was calling him to do.
He then met Lydia, and started a career in insurance that would lead him to Chicago.
Not long after the Second Vatican Council reinstated the permanent diaconate, and soon after the Archdiocese of Chicago established its first program of discernment and formation, Deacon Powell said his parish priest asked him if he thought about being ordained as a deacon.
Deacon Powell recalled telling the priest, “I don’t have the time.” To which the priest replied, “Well, maybe God doesn’t have time for you.”
Two years of formation later, Deacon Powell was ordained.
And one year after that, his career took him back to his native Independence.
Deacon Powell said Bishop Charles Helmsing not only eagerly incardinated him for service in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, he granted Deacon Powell’s wish to serve the Spanish-speaking people of Sacred Heart Parish in Kansas City’s west side.
To this day, he continues to be drawn to same type of service at St. Anthony in northeast Kansas City, where Spanish-speaking people continue to settle.
“There is a great need to make them feel that this is their church, with opportunities for liturgy in their language and service to the community,” Deacon Powell said. “If you don’t create these opportunities, they won’t feel like they are welcome in the church.”
Deacon Powell immediately began offering Teens Encounter Christ opportunities for youth at Sacred Heart. Today, he said, he serves wherever he is needed, in whatever capacity.
Deacon Powell said he is particularly fond of offering adult education classes in Spanish in partnership with Lydia, and with parishioner Manuel Chavez and his wife, Raquel.
He also works in prayer groups, in providing emergency needs through the parish food pantry or connecting families with resources such as the Bishop Sullivan Center, and in counseling and praying with families going through difficulties.
In addition, he also works with the Independence Ministerial Alliance on community issues in his home town, is a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and their work to unify his ancestral Ireland, and has even made mission trips to El Salvador, all the while running his own successful insurance agency.
Deacon Powell said he is able to continue to do all that by ordering his life properly.
“I never felt I was a deacon first,” he said. “My vocation is being married. Second is my kids. Third is my service as a deacon.”
Deacon Powell, however, said that service as a deacon “is a way of life.”
“You have to live what you preach,” he said.
“I have never worn a (Roman) collar, but I respect those who do,” he said. “I felt my role as a deacon was service to the people, and some people might think that collar was putting me on a higher level, and I don’t want that.
“The deacon has to be close to the people in order to be able to work on people’s needs,” he said. “It’s the difference between sergeants and generals. We’re the sergeants who are executing the orders.”
Deacon Powell said his reason for serving at St. Anthony is simple.
“They need a deacon who can speak Spanish,” he said. “My Spanish is pretty good. I’ve gradually picked it up, but it took me a long time. I’ll give homilies in Spanish.”
As for his award from the Missouri Catholic Conference, “It feels good to be recognized,” Deacon Powell said.
“But then you think of all the other people who are deserving. Lydia deserves this more than I do,” he said.
“He is the one who is out there, helping and working with the people,” she said. “I am very proud and happy.”