Following God’s Path – ‘Baby Deacons’ in Trenton and New Baden completing first year in service to Church

Deacons (from left) Justin Wolfslau, Brad Haar and Tom Ritzheimer are completing their first year of service since being ordained June 3 at Cathedral of St. Peter in Belleville. All three minister at St. George in New Baden and St. Mary in Trenton (Submitted photo).

Bishop McGovern on the role of deacons:

“One of the hallmarks of the Church is our outreach to the poor and neglected in our society. Deacons have a significant role in providing both material and spiritual help for the poor in the name of the Church. No matter what other services a deacon provides (in liturgy, education, parish life), it is important that each deacon has a ministry that brings him into direct, face-to-face contact with the poor.”


Three first-year deacons serving the same two parishes are discovering what this new journey as a deacon means to them, a path they say God called them to follow.

They also all say that six years ago, either Deacon John Fridley or the late Father Joe Rascher talked with them and asked the question: “Would you consider becoming a deacon?”

That “ask” is what it took to start the discernment process for each of them to become ordained.

Brad Haar, Tom Ritzheimer and Justin Wolfslau are deacons serving St. George Catholic Church in New Baden and St. Mary Catholic Church in Trenton. They were ordained with 15 other men on June 3, 2023.

The three men all grew up and have raised or are raising families in New Baden and Trenton, so they know the area and the people in the parishes and communities well.

Deacon Ritzheimer, 65, a grandfather and retired from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, is the oldest of the three but is still a so-called “baby deacon” like the others. He and his wife, Pat, live in Trenton. They have two sons and one grandson.

Deacon Ritzheimer said he would be in church on Sunday mornings and hear in the intentions each week how help is needed with vocations. He asked Father Rascher what he could do since he couldn’t be a priest.

“Father mentioned becoming a deacon and to speak with Deacon John Fridley and Deacon John Mote,” he said. “They were all an immense help in my discernment process.”

Deacon Haar, 41, lives in New Baden with his wife, Stephanie, and three sons, ages 12, 8 and 5. He worked for years in banking but now is in data engineering and architecture in a government contracting job.

Deacon Haar said Deacon Fridley planted the seed about the diaconate six or seven years ago.

“I started discerning about it,” he said. “I asked myself what I could do to help the church. So, the seed was sown, it grew and here I am.”

Deacon Wolfslau, 38, also lives in New Baden. He and his wife, Dana, have two sons, ages 12 and 9. He has been an IT project manager at Scott Air Force Base for nearly 18 years.

Deacon Wolfslau said: “Deacon Fridley approached me at a point in my life where I wanted to dive into the church. He brought up the diaconate program. I thought maybe this is where God is calling me.”

He said that although he was a “cradle Catholic,” it was his wife’s faith journey that influenced him. She joined the Catholic Church in 2011.“Seeing her grow in her relationship to Church and her relationship with Christ made me want to do the same,” Deacon Wolfslau shared. “Her desire to learn more about the faith and to grow in that path sparked something in me.”

Whether retired or working in full-time careers, deacons serve a vital role as servants of the Church.

From the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: “A deacon is an ordained minister of the Catholic Church. There are three groups, or ‘orders,’ of ordained ministers in the Church: bishops, presbyters and deacons. Deacons are ordained as a sacramental sign to the Church and to the world of Christ, who came ‘to serve and not to be served.’

“The entire Church is called by Christ to serve, and the deacon, in virtue of his sacramental ordination and through his various ministries, is to be a servant in a servant-Church.”

In their first nine months in the diaconate, Deacons Haar, Ritzheimer and Wolfslau have all participated in the various responsibilities of deacons.

As ministers of Word, deacons proclaim the Gospel, preach and teach in the name of the Church.

As ministers of Sacrament, deacons baptize, lead the faithful in prayer, witness marriages and conduct wake and funeral services.

As ministers of Charity, deacons are leaders in identifying the needs of others, then marshaling the Church’s resources to meet those needs.

Deacon formation is the process for discerning whether a particular person has these gifts of Christ-like charity and service.

In the Diocese of Belleville, this process is facilitated through a five-year program of human, spiritual, doctrinal and pastoral formation, through the St. Meinrad School of Theology.

Classes are held at the Cathedral of St. Peter on the second weekend of each month, except July and August.

Deacon Wolfslau suggested: “Start entering into prayer with God, understanding that he might not give you clear answers right away. But open that dialogue: ‘Is this where you want me to be?’”

He added: “I believe it is a calling. It’s not meant for everybody. It’s definitely challenging. It’s pushed me outside of my comfort zone, but that’s part of the discernment process. It might not necessarily be where you are comfortable, but it’s where you are called.”

Deacon Haar said: “If the seed is sown in you, pray about it. Talk to your parish priest, other deacons, your family. You can never interview enough people.”

He said to not take this decision lightly. “It’s a lifelong endeavor.”

Deacon Ritzheimer said he learned so much during the five-year training and discernment, but “the more I learned, the more I didn’t know. Five years just scratched the surface. The more I experience, the more I am learning by doing.”

Deacon Ritzheimer also shared that he and his wife often took Father Rascher to his chemotherapy treatments, giving them a lot of time to talk in the car.

“On the day he died, Father thanked me for answering the call,” Deacon Ritzheimer said. “That was touching, unbelievable.”

The Office of Permanent Deacon is considering starting a new class of aspirants in fall 2025. Eligibility is extended to men aged 33 to 56 by September 2025. Men older than 56 may still apply but require special approval from the Deacon Formation Office and the Bishop.

For more information, contact Father Steven Pautler, director of deacon formation, at 618-722-5043 or [email protected].

Visit the diocesan website at