By Tom Holmes
Many at St. Bernardine's congregation believe that permanent Deacon Lendell Richardson is a happy addition to the Harrison St. church to help grow the number and diversity of those sitting in the pews on Sunday.
"The fact that he is black, a medical doctor, a university teacher and married to a white Orthodox Christian medical doctor, all contribute to diversity and experience," said Jim Murray, a longtime member of St. Bernardine's.
Richardson, 55, was appointed to the church at 7246 Harrison St. about a year ago, after serving a church in his home of Oak Park for 11 years and being ordained by Cardinal Francis George at the Archdiocese of Chicago in 2006. The diaconal program he was ordained through had fallen into disuse by the Catholic Church for centuries, even though it was a respected ministry in the early church. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, however, it was restored as a permanent ministry by Pope Paul VI in 1967.
As the number of priests in the U.S. falls—from 57,317 in 1985 to 37,192 in 2016, with nearly 3,500 churches without a priest that year, according to the National Federation of Priests Councils—deacons help fill that void and also help churches with priests assist members, like Rev. Stanislaw Kuca, who most at St. Bernardine's know as "Father Stan."
Like Catholic priests, deacons are ordained and give sermons or homilies. They serve by assisting with, but not presiding over, the sacrament of the Holy Communion and are engaged in the Ministry of Charity, which means they work to serve the needs of parish members. Unlike priests, permanent deacons can marry, raise families and have jobs outside of the church.
Some see Richardson's marriage as a way to help connect the ordained with ordinary church-goers.
"People can identify with him and he with them," said Anne Stauffer, director of religious education at St. Bernardine's, adding: "I have experienced Deacon Lendell to be a very caring, sensitive and compassionate person. He reaches out to people on a very human level—he speaks from the heart."
Others see Richardson's race as an asset. "Because of his African American heritage, he brings a more inclusive environment of leadership," said David Meyer, member of St. Bernardine's, which has mostly white attendees. "His presence as deacon may draw folks from the African American community."
The path didn't come easy to Richardson.
He considered becoming a Catholic priest when he was a student at St. Rita of Cascia High School in Chicago, but never felt a strong calling. Back then, he more readily saw himself as a husband and father.
"I also felt more drawn to medicine as a calling than ordained ministry," he said.
Richardson pursued a career in medicine, graduating from Loyola University of Chicago's Stritch School of Medicine in 1990 and specializing in internal medicine. There, he must have met his wife Tina Richardson, with both earning the coveted State of Public Health Scholarship. Like Lendell, Tina also graduated from Loyola's Stritch in 1990 and now works as senior physician in women's issues at the Cook County Department of Corrections. The two married, had three children together and lived in Oak Park.
But the pull toward some kind of ordained ministry remained.
"I often felt that God was calling me to more of a ministerial role in the church," he said. "As I inquired and learned more about diaconal ministry, the more I felt somehow called to serve through this ministry, in addition to service through medicine."
They became more involved in their home parish until they felt ready in 2002 to do the Aspirancy Year of Diaconal Formation, which Richardson described as a year of intense prayer and exposure to all that diaconal ministry entails. This year confirmed to Richardson and his family that he was ready to make the commitment of becoming a deacon.
Now, after 12 years of serving as a permanent deacon, family man and physician, Richardson sums up his experience by saying, "Being a deacon and serving the people of God has been a distinct and humbling honor, privilege, and challenge. I am blessed to have heard the call, sought to answer it, and use the gifts which God has freely given me in the service of His people."
This story has been updated to reflect that membership at St. Bernardine's is not falling, and actually increased 0.6% from 2016 to 2017.