By: Dominique Johnson
Since 1976 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has dedicated one week of the year as National Vocation Awareness Week to promote vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and consecrated life. During this week, the bishops call those who are seeking their vocations to pray and learn about God’s will for them, and for their family and friends to pray for and support them during this journey.
In our Diocese we continue to pray for those who are called to serve in our parishes, as we currently have six active priests, two seminarians, six deacons and one sister serving in Southeast. Please continue to pray for and thank those who have said yes to God’s call to serve in our Diocese.
Here are a few vocation stories from those serving the Diocese of Juneau as a consecrated religious, a deacon, a seminarian and a priest.
Sister Marie Lucek, OP
Sister Marie Lucek, OP, heard God calling her to become a sister when she was about 10 years old.
“The Sisters in our town at the time ran orphanages, and I felt that I wanted to work in an orphanage,” she said.
A year later, Sister Marie’s family moved, but before she left she wrote a letter to a sister who was her teacher; Sister Marie never received a reply and added, “That’s why I never thought about an orphanage again, if she had written back to me, it might have been different.”
Sister Marie attended Catholic school from elementary school through high school where she heard about vocations on a consistent basis.
She attended an all-girls high school where the sisters would host retreats at the mother house, but she admitted that she, “hemmed and hawed” during high school and didn’t attend the events.
After graduating high school, Sister Marie joined the work force. It was when a co-worker decided to join a religious community that Sister Marie began praying about her vocation.
“I think it was God’s way of saying I’m calling you too,” she said.
She began looking at different communities and remembered how the Dominican Sisters that worked at her grade school were always a happy group, so she went back to the school and met with one of her former teachers. After the meeting, she was introduced to the other sisters teaching at the school and she could tell from those interactions that this was a good group of women in the faith.
When she shared with her family that she was going to pursue the religious life, she said her mother was, “thrilled,” since her mother had thought about becoming a sister when she was younger and had prayed that one of her nine children would serve as a sister or priest.
Sister Marie shared that her father’s response was, “You will have three square meals a day,” which she interpreted as his way of saying that it would be a good life for her.
In her 53 years as a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa, Sister Marie has taught and served parishes in the Bronx, Washington, D.C., Juneau and other parts of the country.
Her message to those discerning religious life is to research different communities and begin communication with them to find a community that suits their gifts.
“Looking back, it’s a wonderful life and I encourage others to take a look.”
James Wallace is one of two diocesan seminarians. He is currently attending Mundelein Seminary in Illinois.
Growing up in a Catholic family in Southern California Wallace attended Catholic school. He said his family was a typical family, not too religious. His mother would teach him and his siblings about the Church, his family would pray before meals and occasionally read the bible.
When asked if he thought about becoming a priest during high school he responded, “No, not at all.”
After high school James enlisted in the Coast Guard where he served for 8 years. During his time in the service Wallace was stationed in Virginia, California, Texas and Alaska.
It was during his time in Alaska that Wallace began to hear God calling him to explore the priesthood. James was stationed at the Coast Guard base in Sitka and attended Mass at St. Gregory Nazianzen where he met former pastor Father Scott Settimo, a former Coast Guard officer from Southern California.
“He really encouraged me to take my faith seriously…he was the first person who had a profound effect on calling me towards the ministry,” Wallace said.
Wallace recalled one Sunday at Mass in Sitka where Father Settimo mentioned the story of Ernest Shackleton, an Antarctic explorer, in his homily. Wallace had recently read a biography on Shackleton himself.
“I just remember being so shocked. It was such a coincidence…he didn’t realize what it meant to me, but at the time it was a strong signal (to pray about my vocation),” Wallace said.
In his late twenties, Wallace decided it was time to leave the military and discern the priesthood. When he shared his plan with his family and friends Wallace said, “All of them were laughing to begin with,” since he wasn’t very religious growing up.
His father had a different reaction though, “He was one of the few who actually recognized a genuine, authentic call.”
Wallace has been in seminary now for five years, with two more years left before he can be ordained a priest and shared, “It’s been one of the most wonderful times of my life, it is filled with fraternity and people growing in their faith…it’s intoxicating, it’s unlike anything you’ll ever experience.”
For those thinking about the priesthood Wallace encourages them to pursue it.
“If it’s truly God’s will for your life doors will begin to open up…but take the time to ask God what is it You want me to do.”
Deacon Mike Monagle
When discussing vocations Deacon Mike Monagle quoted Bishop Edward Burns saying, “God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called.”
Deacon Mike was raised in a strong Catholic family where the family practiced the faith in more than attending Sunday Mass. He recalls praying the rosary regularly along with other family prayers. He even had two aunts who were nuns, who along with his parents “planted the seeds” of the priesthood in his mind early on.
Deacon Mike attended 1st-5thgrade at St. Ann’s school in Juneau where the sisters encouraged him as well as the other students to be altar servers, which he did.
After high school, he discerned the priesthood during the first few months of college at the University of Oregon. God had different plans for him though, as we met and later married his wife Marilyn while living in Oregon.
Marilyn, who wasn’t Catholic when they got married, would later go through the RCIA program with Deacon Mike as her sponsor. The process helped them both grow in their faith lives and their marriage. The two have now been married for 35 years and have two adult sons.
Already living out the vocation of marriage and parenthood, God began planting the seed of the diaconate.
“I didn’t really think about the diaconate until Father Tony Dummer came up to me after Mass one day, and let me know they were starting the diaconate back up and he thought I’d be a good candidate,” Deacon Mike said.
He took the time to discern and admits, “I could think of a hundred reasons to say no, but I discerned if this was something God was calling me to.”
He felt like there were people better suited for the vocation than he was, but when he prayed and asked God if this is where he was calling him, “He said yes.”
With the diaconate, the decision is not just a personal decision, but one made with your spouse as well and Deacon Mike said Marilyn let him know, “If it’s something that you feel called to, I’m 100 percent behind it.”
As his ordination day came closer, Deacon Mike shared that doubts started to creep in. He began to wonder if this was the vocation God was calling him to. Putting his trust in God and prayer he was ordained a deacon in August 2014, “It was a very spirit filled experience,” he now says confidently.
To those discerning the call to the diaconate Deacon Mike says, “Don’t be afraid of saying yes,” and added that, “It’s amazing what blessings God bestows on people who say yes to his call, even though we might not know where that will lead us.”
Father Edmund Penisten
Father Edmund Penisten began thinking about the priesthood at the age of five, at least that’s what his parents have told him.
He grew up in a Catholic family living in the Midwest before moving to Eagle River, Alaska when he was thirteen.
One story Father Penisten remembered from his childhood was how his mother wouldn’t allow him to attend a Boy Scout event, because the family was attending a parish mission. He would later find out the scouting event was cancelled, because of bad weather.
“Even at 15 years of age, I was like, okay Lord, you’ve made your point,” he joked.
Though he would occasionally disagree with his parents about attending church activities, Father Penisten started thinking about becoming a priest when he was in the fifth grade, when he became an altar server. “I loved setting up for Mass, I loved serving the Mass,” he said.
He also said the sacrament of penance played a role in his calling to the priesthood. His family would attend reconciliation together on a regular basis and it was in feeling God’s forgiveness that Father Penisten wanted, “To be an instrument of that grace.”
Throughout high school Father Penisten knew he wanted to be a priest and was open about it with his classmates and teachers.
“I got kidded about this from time to time by fellow students and teachers, but other times some teachers would say, ‘no, it’s a good thing,’” he shared.
Being part of a strong Catholic family, Father Penisten received full support from them on his decision to explore the vocation.
He recalled a conversation his father had with him when he was 16 years old. His dad told him, “You will run into people who will tell you, you must get married to have children to carry on the family name. If it is God’s will that you become a priest, you don’t worry about that.”
After his freshman year of college, Father Penisten became a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Anchorage and attended Bishop White Seminary at the University of Gonzaga for three years.
Then came time for graduate studies and after the first semester Father Penisten said he didn’t feel at home, so he moved back home began working in the secular world. A few years later, still feeling called to be a priest he returned to graduate school only to return home after four days, due to illness.
He worked as a defense contractor at Fort Richardson for five years before pursuing the vocation of the priesthood again.
With the appointment of Bishop Michael Warfel, Father Penisten’s former vocation director, as the fourth bishop of Juneau, Father Penisten decided to consider becoming a priest in the diocese.
“I wrote to the diocese, got a nice response and one thing led to another…and a few months after that Bishop Warfel invited me to become a seminarian,” Father Penisten said.
After 21 years of pursuit of his vocation, Father Penisten was ordained a priest on May 21st, 2002, along with Father Thomas Weise. The Ordination was the first Mass celebrated in the new St. Paul’s Church.
Looking back at his ordination day Father Penisten said he doesn’t remember much; he was, “In a daze.”
To men considering the priesthood Father Penisten suggests that you, “Pray, routinely celebrate the sacrament of penance as a matter of spiritual growth, talk with your parish priest and feel free to contact the vocation director at any time.”
If you feel that God is calling you to a vocation of the priesthood, religoius life or the diaconate feel free to talk with local priest, sister or deacon. You can also contact the Diocesan vocation director , Father Edmund Penisten about the priesthood at (907) 755-2345 or Deacon Charles Rohrbacher about the diaconate at (907)586-2227