By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant
DUBUQUE — Deacon John Winkel volunteered his time at the Cathedral of St. Raphael in Dubuque eight times during the Year of Mercy. His wife, Patrice, joined him whenever her teaching schedule allowed.
“Each time was so unique,” the deacon said of his and his wife’s experiences at the cathedral. “Each time was different. We met many people when we were there; everyone had a story.”
The Winkels, who belong to St. Jude Parish in Cedar Rapids, helped at the cathedral as part of the commitment made by the deacon community of the archdiocese to try to have one deacon present each day the cathedral was open to pilgrims during the Year of Mercy.
St. Raphael’s was the designated site for the “Door of Mercy” for the Archdiocese of Dubuque and was therefore the destination of a large number of pilgrims throughout the jubilee year.
To accommodate the pilgrims, parishioners of the cathedral, the parish’s staff and numerous volunteers – both lay and religious – came together to expand the hours the cathedral was open.
The diaconate community in particular stepped up to help. They created a schedule and assigned hours for deacons to serve at the cathedral. They were to be there to greet pilgrims, offer tours, provide information, answer questions and lead the Divine Mercy Chaplet each afternoon.
A deacon (and sometimes his wife, if married) covered every day the cathedral was open during the Year of Mercy, with the exception of Mother’s Day.
During one of the days he helped at the cathedral, Deacon Winkel said he met a distant cousin from Minneapolis who happened to be there on a pilgrimage. On another occasion, he met a couple on their way to Madison, Wisconsin, from Kansas City, Missouri, trying to visit as many cathedrals along the way as possible.
Deacon Winkel said the experience that made the greatest impact on him, though, was the encounter he had with a man who was deaf. The deacon gave the man a brochure when he arrived and showed him around parts of the cathedral and its crypt.
“When we were finished, the gentlemen wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to me. It said he was so appreciative of how it (the tour) had made him feel,” said Deacon Winkel, who was moved by the gesture.
The man turned out to be a priest from the Archdiocese of Detroit.
On other days, no pilgrims would visit, but retired Deacon Jim Carroll of Dubuque, who volunteered about 15 times at the cathedral this year, said those days also had worth.
“Sometimes, no one would show up, and that was a beautiful time too,” he said. “It was a chance to meditate and pray. Those days meant a lot. It was a valuable time.”
When pilgrims did come in, most were Catholic, but not all were. Retired Deacon John Herman from Waterloo remembers a day when a young woman came in who was a student from Loras College. Together, they prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
“After we got done, we visited for a few minutes. She told me she was not yet Catholic, but was in the RCIA program,” reflected Deacon Herman. “That made me so happy that she shared that with me.”
Many of the pilgrims the deacons met came from the Archdiocese of Dubuque, but others came from much further away. Deacon Tom Lang, director of the Permanent Diaconate Office for the archdiocese, said he encountered pilgrims from all over the country when he was helping at the cathedral, and even met one woman from as far away as Sydney, Australia.
Deacon Lang said one of the most memorable experiences for him and his wife, Kris, came when they met a couple from Baltimore.
After Deacon Lang offered the couple a Divine Mercy prayer card, they began a conversation about Saint Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun and mystic who had helped begin the worldwide Divine Mercy devotion.
The Baltimore couple shared that it was their parish priest who, after being cured of a serious heart condition, had served as the second miracle that had allowed Saint Faustina to be canonized in 2000.
“It was such a blessing to meet them,” Deacon Lang said.
Deacon Winkel said he also feels blessed by the people he met this year and the experiences he had serving at the cathedral. “I’m a different person because of this year and the relationships I’ve made,” he said.
As the last pilgrims visit the cathedral on Nov. 20, Deacon Winkel believes it is important for him and for everyone to remember that what has happened this year is meant to continue.
“The Year of Mercy is coming to a close, but it’s not an end,” he said. “It’s not like it’s over and now we can relax. We did something together over this year, and now we need to keep putting it into action.”
Deacon Ray Noonan greets pilgrims Mark and Sharon Lagrange, parishioners of St. Michael’s in Norway, as they visit the Cathedral of St. Raphael in Dubuque on Nov. 14. (Photo by Jill Kruse/The Witness)