New deacon lives his faith through journey with cancer

All Saints parishioner ordained to permanent diaconate in special Mass led by Bishop Stika

By Gabrielle Nolan

The presence of God is not confined within the walls of a church, and where two or more are gathered in His name, He is surely present.

This truth could not have been more palpable than at the ordination Mass of Deacon Kenneth Conklin on Saturday, Sept. 25, where more than 70 members of his family, friends, and deacon class encircled him in prayer.

The 10 a.m. Mass took place at the private residence of the Conklins, located at Douglas Lake in Dandridge. The surrounding beauty of mountains, water, and open sky were the backdrop to an altar prepared on the wooden deck of their home.

“It was a great joy to be able to celebrate the cathedral of nature today, since [Ken] was not able to travel to the cathedral,” Bishop Richard F. Stika said. “In some ways, the cathedral of the Mother Church traveled to this house with this beautiful, beautiful setting.”

“Every morning, my wife and I, we sit out here and enjoy the morning, a cup of coffee, and I’m most amazed at the beauty before me that God has given us,” Deacon Conklin said. “To me, God Almighty has done so many wonderful things for me in my life.”

Ken Conklin receives the Gospels from Bishop Stika as the bishop presides at the Rite of Ordination. Deacon Larry Rossini is assisting the bishop.

A home at All Saints

Deacon Conklin and his wife, Diane, celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary in July and are affectionately referred to as the “Dairy Queen sweethearts,” as that is where they were working when they met as teenagers in New Jersey.

After living in Atlanta for 15 years, the couple moved to Tennessee in 2003, where they eventually became parishioners at All Saints Parish in Knoxville.

“We just fell in love with All Saints,” Mrs. Conklin said. “Father Michael Woods was the pastor at that time, and we don’t mind a 40-, 45-minute drive to All Saints. We love Father Doug Owens now, too.”

Deacon Conklin previously served on the parish finance council, while Mrs. Conklin currently serves as the wedding planner and coordinates with Deacon Tim Elliott of All Saints.

“I think that she and Ken together both truly embody what it means to be a wedding planner for each other to get us to the feast, the wedding feast of the lamb, which is heaven, and to be in union and one with Christ in heaven,” said Robert Denne, a fellow deacon candidate and All Saints parishioner. “To me, that witness right there between Diane and Ken… really sticks out to me.

“The two are extremely supportive of each other, just built around family, and just a joy that Ken exudes when he says he’s with family or going to be with family. The two of them definitely have the goal in mind of getting each other to heaven and do what they can to support each other in that.”

The Conklins have two daughters, Casie Akin and Lindsay Russell. Casie is wife to Adam Akin and mother to daughters Charlotte and Georgia; Lindsay is wife to Brad Russell, and they are expecting a child due next year.

Diane Conklin, wife of Ken Conklin, the Diocese of Knoxville’s newest deacon, proudly watches her husband as he is ordained into the permanent diaconate by Bishop Stika.

Traveling the road of cancer

Deacon Conklin, 67, was diagnosed in 2018 with colon cancer. Despite multiple rounds of chemotherapy and surgery, over time the cancer spread to his liver and stomach.

After an emergency surgery Sept. 17 revealed several tumors in his intestines and stomach, the doctors sent Deacon Conklin home on hospice care.

Urgent communication began between the Conklins, Bishop Stika, and Deacon Elliott, who serves as the diocesan director of the diaconate and deacon formation.

“When I found out that his surgery had gone the way that it did, how much cancer they found, and the fact that… he’d be going into hospice, I texted Bishop [that] night,” Deacon Elliott said.

“[Bishop] called and talked to Ken and his wife Diane and asked him what he thought about being ordained early, and then sent me some texts and says, ‘Let’s get this thing going,’” he said.

The team had one week to prepare the liturgy and logistics and inform friends and family from around the country.

Deacon Patrick Murphy-Racey volunteered to professionally record the Mass on video, so that the family would have a lasting memory of the day.

“I was floored by the response I got from the guys to change their lives around to be there for that moment, and the number of people that showed up,” Mr. Denne said.

“To drop everything for that man is a great testament,” he added.

An ordination at home

Before the Mass began, Deacon Conklin was given a signed card from Bishop Stika, along with a blessed St. Lawrence cross, the symbol of the diaconate. The image of the cross with a stole draping across the front of it, strung by a cord, is named after one of the early deacons of the Church.

As the Mass began, Mrs. Conklin escorted her husband while carrying his vestments, and helped place him in a special seat directly in front of the altar. Because of his discomfort and recent surgery, Deacon Ken remained seated throughout the duration of the Mass.

The readings and psalm were proclaimed by fellow deacon candidates David Duhamel and Wade Eckler. Deacon Larry Rossini served as deacon of the altar, while Deacon Joe Stackhouse served as deacon of the Word. The Litany of Saints was chanted by seminarian Bobby Denne, son of deacon candidate Mr. Denne.

After the Gospel was the calling of the candidate, where Deacon Conklin declared his presence.

Bishop Stika delivered the homily while standing directly in front of Deacon Conklin and his family.

Deacon Ken Conklin is surrounded by his wife, Diane, daughters Casie Akin and Lindsay Russell, their husbands, Adam Akin and Brad Russell, and granddaughters Charlotte and Georgia Akin. The newly ordained deacon, in one of his first official acts, gave a special blessing to his family following his ordination.

“Life has its turns and its moments, and now we come to this moment,” Bishop Stika said. “A moment in which you give witness to the world. There’s a simple dialogue in which you are presented, not just to me or not just to all of us, but to God himself.”

Bishop Stika spoke about how, for Christians, suffering can be redemptive.

“Somehow, in a very mysterious and grace-filled way, our sufferings are no longer our sufferings, but they’re the sufferings of Jesus himself,” he said. “And at the end of one’s life, however that might be, somehow the Church has always taught that your prayers are truly magnificent, and your prayers and suffering are that which contains more power than we can ever imagine.”

“I thank you for this witness over your course of studies and for this moment, even though you might be in great discomfort, for your willingness to say yes to God when he has called you to this moment, as he called you to the moment when you were conceived,” Bishop Stika said.

Following the homily, Deacon Conklin declared his intentions before the people to undertake the office of permanent diaconate, responding “I do” to the resolutions prompted by the bishop and promising his obedience to him and the Church.

The Rite of Ordination included the laying on of hands, where Bishop Stika placed his hands upon Deacon Conklin’s head and prayed over him. Then vesting occurred, where Bishop Stika and Deacon Elliot assisted Deacon Conklin in putting on his new liturgical garments of stole, cincture, and dalmatic.

After the vesting, the Gospels were placed on Deacon Conklin’s lap, where he set his hands on top of the open book.

The words of the ordination rite proclaim: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become; believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”

All deacons present approached Deacon Conklin to give the sign of peace to their newest member, a moving testament to the love and respect present in their brotherhood and ministry.

At the end of Mass, Bishop Stika gave Deacon Conklin his microphone so he could speak to those gathered. The emotion broke through as he addressed his bishop, classmates, friends, and family.

“Today, being here with all you people, has given me such love, that I hope I’m worthy of it,” Deacon Conklin said. “Bishop Stika, I am really honored that you are at my home and [met] my family and tell you that I love you. Deacon Tim, for four years, you’ve been by my side, and there have been ups and downs with my health, and you always stood there and said your health is first, if you need time off take it.”

But for Deacon Conklin, his journey to the diaconate was always more important than his declining health.

Bishop Stika and Deacon Conklin are joined by other deacon candidates in the class of 2022 for a group photo at Deacon Conklin’s home in Dandridge. The candidates are to be ordained to the permanent diaconate in June at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

“I need to be with my brothers,” he said. “My brothers . . . four and a half years ago, we didn’t know each other from Adam. And here we stand, in brotherhood, supporting each other, and I feel your love.”

“There’s a special call to my family and my friends. They have been my rock. They have gotten me through everything I’ve gone through,” he said as he cried.

A round of applause broke out as Deacon Conklin finished giving thanks to all in attendance.

‘Today was very extraordinary’

After the Mass, guests were welcomed to stay at the family’s home for a reception.

“Today was very extraordinary because Ken’s time is limited,” Bishop Stika said. “It was a great honor for me to be here, along with his family and his classmates and some other deacons, to celebrate this significant moment in his life.

“It’s up to God and his body how much time he has left, but I see him as a very holy man who has accepted this and is a man filled with great love, so how could this not be an honor for me?”

Guests formed a receiving line to visit and take photos with the new deacon, and many asked for his special blessing. Perhaps the most moving blessing of all was when Deacon Conklin’s wife and two daughters bowed before him.

“Today was a very humbling day,” Deacon Conklin said. “One of my goals in life was to reach ordination, and unfortunately, things have taken a turn for the worst, and I am so humbled and blessed that the bishop was willing to ordain me a little early. But I do continue to attend either through video or in-person ordination classes, so I do want to go the whole road.”

“It’s just probably one of the most beautiful things for my husband, to be ordained here at his home with the bishop presiding over it,” Mrs. Conklin said. “And I know that Ken is just so emotional, you know, we feel the love of all the friends, family, that made this work out. We have such a beautiful day, and it’s just the most amazing thing to witness. I just never imagined that it would be like this, you know, to watch my husband be ordained.”

A love for faith, and pretzels

On one side of the Conklins’ deck was a table adorned with drinks and a baked pretzel display spelling out “Deacon Ken.” This homage alludes to one of his favorite pastimes: making and sharing Philly pretzels.

“He used to bring in pretzels all the time for us with different dips that they were trying out, checking out and stuff,” said Deacon Elliott. “So we’d sit around on Friday nights talking and eating pretzels.”

“We did have a franchise there for a while, but we don’t have it anymore,” Mrs. Conklin explained. “Here, in Tennessee, we had this store open at the Walmart in Knoxville. We had it for, I think it was almost four years, and we were going to transfer the store to Dollywood.”

Delays prevented the store’s move from happening, and Deacon Conklin’s cancer became more of a priority.

“They wanted us out there, but during that whole transition, you know, COVID hit and all, and then we just never pursued it after that because we had more important things going on in our life. We just didn’t need to be that busy,” Mrs. Conklin noted.

Joining a brotherhood

Deacon Conklin is one of 25 members of the current deacon formation class, which officially began its formal classes in September 2017. The cohort meets one full weekend of every month at the Christ Prince of Peace Retreat Center in Benton, where they room, eat, study, and discuss together.

Guests prepare for the ordination Mass for Deacon Ken Conklin at the Conklin home at Douglas Lake in Dandridge. Bishop Stika referred to the beautiful setting for the ordination Mass as God’s cathedral.

“We were the first group to go through the program to be able to utilize the CPOP retreat center,” Mr. Denne said. “It was really the time after the instruction at night sitting around and talking to everybody and getting to know each other… to have that fellowship that I think really has bonded this class like no other.”

“[Ken has] been at all of the meetings, either in person or by Zoom” since the program began, said Deacon Elliott.

In November, the class will shift into practicum work, which will take them to the end of the program in April. The practicum teaches the deacon candidates how to serve at the altar with bishops and priests and how to develop homilies. In May, the candidates are required to attend a canonical retreat for five days at St. Bernard’s Abbey in Cullman, Ala.

The remaining members are scheduled to be ordained to the permanent diaconate on June 11 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

“What did [Ken’s ordination] mean to me? It meant that God still works all the time,” Deacon Elliott said. “He calls that witness of steadfast faith and hope in Him, no matter what the odds are, no matter what is going on in the world.”

“One of the most incredible things about Ken, and Diane for that matter, is they understand what the word hope means,” he said. “Through all of this, they’re very practical, but they’re also very grounded in that hope and in their Catholic faith.”

The deacon candidates continue to lift up the Conklin family in prayer, and by walking alongside their brother as he strives to continue the program with them.

“Ken has always been the face of Christ to us in his suffering. You knew he was in pain, but he was always there. He didn’t complain about it,” Mr. Denne said. “He just wanted to be with us and be in the program no matter what. The man is still just a beautiful witness to the faith.”

Diane Conklin expressed appreciation for her husband’s classmates.

“They’ve just been so supportive,” Mrs. Conklin said about the diaconate class. “They call whenever, always offering help for us, and we’ve established a relationship for the past four-plus years, and we’re like a family.”

 

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