Red Hook resident Leroy Branch is a lay deacon of the Catholic Church, assigned to the Parish of St. Paul and St. Agnes in Cobble Hill.
If you’ve ever attended a Mass with Deacon Leroy on the altar, either proclaiming the gospel, reading the Prayer of the Faithful or announcing “The Mass is ended, go in peace” in his booming voice, you will surely appreciate the experience. We recently spoke to Deacon Leroy who provided us with an in-depth look into his role as a deacon.
Red Hook Star-Revue: What prompted you to become a lay deacon? Was there anyone in particular who influenced your decision? Did you ever consider the priesthood?
Deacon Leroy Branch: Growing up as a pew Catholic and an altar boy in St. Agnes Church, I was always intrigued by the priests and the nuns who educated me in Catholic school. Two priests in particular who influenced me were Fr. George LaFlair, pastor of St. Agnes when I was in grammar school, and Monsignor Perfecto Vasquez. Msgr. Perfecto was the first priest that I saw who entered a New York City Housing Authority Development (Gowanus Houses) unafraid and associated one-on-one with the people. Both men showed their “human side” not just their alb-wearing altar sides. At one point I considered becoming a priest, but I always had the desire to have a family so becoming a priest was out of the question and at the time I had no knowledge of the diaconate whatsoever. I didn’t know that there were any Catholic lay deacons. In terms of the diaconate being a ministry of service, the last person who influenced me was my father, LeRoy Branch, Sr., who I saw growing up in Gowanus Houses actively implementing various sports and recreational programs for the youth to give them something positive to do. He helped many who were delinquent and didn’t have father figures to look up to. Indirectly, he helped them with all aspects of life’s trials and tribulations.
RHSR: How long was the diaconate process and what did it entail? What are some of the requirements?
DLB: The diaconate process is a total of five years; one year of aspirancy and four years of intense, higher-level educational instruction and training. A candidate must be between 35 and 60 years of age to apply, a Catholic in good standing, and he must be able to attend weekly classes and weekend retreats. And, if married, the wife must give her consent as well as attend classes once a month and participate in retreats during aspirancy.
RHSR: When were you ordained?
DLB: I was ordained on May 23, 2009 in St. James Cathedral in Downtown Brooklyn by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.
RHSR: Were you allowed to choose where you would serve? Do you serve the parish or the diocese?
DLB: Deacons serve at the pleasure of the Bishop of the Diocese, therefore we are not allowed to choose where we will serve. I was blessed to be allowed to serve in my home parish of St. Paul & St. Agnes.
RHSR: Tell me a little about your personal life.
DLB: I grew up in NYCHA Gowanus Houses, the third of four children of LeRoy and Laura Branch. I attended St. Agnes Church and school from childhood until I turned 17 and then started attending St. Peter’s-St. Paul’s Church on Court Street where I met Norma, my wife of 30-plus years. We have one son, Christian Lee. We married at St. Peter’s Church, which was on Hicks Street and was Norma’s childhood church. I went to George Westinghouse High School, attended Fredonia State University for two years and obtained my Bachelors of Arts from Brooklyn College. As a youth, I spent a lot of time in Red Hook Houses (another NYCHA development) because my maternal aunt and maternal grandmother resided there. We have lived in Red Hook for the last six years.
RHSR: What are your main responsibilities as a deacon? How do your duties differ from those of a priest?
DLB: The main responsibility of a deacon is one of service: to assist the priest and the parish in sacramental, social, and spiritual needs. As a deacon, I can perform any and all services outside of mass, i.e. baptisms, marriages, prayer services, wakes, and funerals. We can also bless things and people.
The priesthood and diaconate are two of the three holy orders in the Catholic clergy that are ordained. Priests are ordained to celebrate the Eucharist, preach, offer the sacraments, and lead the parish community. Priests make three promises: chastity for the sake of the kingdom, promise to pray the Liturgy of the Hours daily, and obedience to the local Bishop. Deacons are ordained for service. We also make a promise to be obedient to the local Bishop and pray the Liturgy of the Hours daily. We can be married, but once we are ordained, we cannot get married or remarry. We must be married before we are ordained as deacons. We cannot celebrate Mass, hear confessions, or anoint the sick. At Mass, we lead the Penitential Rite, proclaim the Gospel, preach, prepare the altar and the gifts, distribute communion, especially the precious blood, and give the dismissal at Mass.
RHSR: Your whole family seems to be involved. How has being a deacon impacted your family life?
DLB: Adjusting to my new responsibilities was easier due to the fact that we each had individual and combined ministries prior to my becoming a deacon and knew the dedication and commitment that it would require. I believe that our family’s spirituality deepened. We each dedicate more time to prayer in our daily lives. In fact, we always pray before meals even when out in restaurants or riding the bus.
RHSR: What words of advice would you give others who might be interested in becoming a deacon and what do you find to be most rewarding about being a deacon?
DLB: My advice would be Pray, Pray and Pray! A calling to the diaconate comes from our Father in heaven and in order to know His will in your life, you must be close to him – mind, body and spirit. To be able to be Jesus’ ears — to listen and understand, His eyes — to see what needs to be done, His mouth — to be able to preach His word, and His hands — to be able to give service to all those in need. To be able to see the face of those I help or to be a part of an extended family when you baptize, marry or to be there to minister during a special moment or death to the same members of a parish family is one of the greatest blessings God could ever have given me. The most rewarding part of being a deacon is to be able to spread God’s message of Love, Forgiveness and Peace to the entire parish community and beyond.
RHSR: You work full-time for the NYC DOT; and how do you manage to fit in your ministries as a deacon with your regular job?
DLB: I am the Community Coordinator for the Brooklyn Borough Commissioner’s office. Gratefully, my job does not hinder me from my ministry at all. As a matter of fact, it afforded me the opportunity to ease the mind of a non-Catholic parent whose daughter was in Catholic school and wished to convert to Catholicism by my becoming her sponsor and to continue to help guide her on her faith journey.
RHSR: Would you agree that there is a growing need for deacons in the Catholic Church, given the declining number of priests? And do you have any thoughts on women assuming a greater role in the Church and perhaps being allowed to become deacons?
DLB: The need for more deacons is definitely growing. I think that a number of deacons are qualified and can take over the administrative aspect of churches freeing up the priests to devote more time to handle the pastoral aspects. I believe that women can and should take on a greater role in the church. In St. Paul’s writings and that of the early church, there’s mention of deaconesses who just like deacons provided for the needs of the women in the church. In these modern times I believe the Church could benefit from this ministry.
Congregation Mount Sinai
250 Cadman Plaza West
Kristallnacht Observance on Sunday, November 12 at 5 pm. Eva Wiener will talk about her experience on the ill-fated voyage of the SS St. Louis in 1939. RSVP to 718-875-9124
Afternoon Film Festival featuring “Raise the Roof” on Wednesday, November 15 at 3:30 pm.
Tot Shabbat – Join Dreamcoat Experience for a fun, interactive Shabbat for supervised children up to age 5 . Friday, November 17, 3:30 pm and Saturdays, November 4 and 18, 11 am. Free of charge. For information, email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kane Street Synagogue
236 Kane Street
Bialy Rock Music Class for Infants and Toddlers – Ora Fruchter and Ketchup the puppet are back on Fridays at 10-10:45 am through December 22. Children sing, dance, play instruments and learn Jewish songs in English and Hebrew.
Sacred Hearts/St. Stephen Church
Summit & Hicks Street
All Souls Day – Memorial Mass at 7:00 pm for all who have died this year.
Health and Blood Pressure Clinic sponsored by NYU Langone on Sunday, November 5, 12, and 19.
Flu Clinic will be held on Sunday, November 12 from 11 am-1 pm. To receive the flu vaccine, you must be 18 years of age and have your medical card available. In the back of church, near the statue of St. Rocco.
Thanksgiving Eve Parish Mass on Wednesday, November 22 at 7:00 pm.
Consumer Protection Tips for Older Adults – FREE workshop on Monday, December 4, 1-2 pm. In cooperation with NYC Dept. of Consumer Affairs, 76th Precinct, Con Edison and AARP.
St. Agnes/ St. Paul’s Parish
Hoyt & Sackett Streets
Family Movie Night – Featuring Disney’s “Cars 3” on Saturday, November 11 after the 5:30 pm mass in St. Paul’s parish hall. FREE admission & FREE popcorn.
Thanksgiving Day – please bring a dessert and place it on the altar. Father Nugent will be serving them to homeless families later that day.
Monthly fundraising lunch on November 26. 1:30 – 3 pm in St. Agnes Hall, come celebrate a Thanksgiving lunch with your church family. $7!
Eucharistic Adoration. Every first Saturday of the month, noon till 1pm; alternating churches starting Saturday November 4 at the chapel at St. Paul.
St. Mary Star of the Sea Church
467 Court Street
Family Mass of Thanksgiving – Please join us on Thanksgiving Day, November 23 at 9 am.
Check the bulletin on our website, stmarystarbrooklyn.com for more events.
St. Ann and The Holy Trinity
157 Montague Street
First Sunday Sandwich-Making and Welcome Table on November 3 and December 3 after Early Church, from 10:15 to 11:00 am for sandwich-making for those in need at The Gathering Place in East Brooklyn, a drop-in center for the homeless and working poor. And then, immediately following the 11:15 am Holy Eucharist, we’ll welcome one and all to a community meal for the parish family and our hungry neighbors Volunteers needed to set up, serve, provide beverages and dessert, and clean up. A sign up sheet will be available at coffee hour.
New Faith Formation Series: “We Are Pilgrims” on Sundays from 10:15 am – 12:45 pm on November 12 (St. Paul as Pilgrim) and December 17 (Pilgrimage in the Gospels).
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
199 Carroll Street
Father Sean Wallace has been appointed to serve as interim priest. Fr. Wallace will celebrate his first mass at St. Paul’s on November 12.
St. Paul’s 29th Annual Auction on Saturday, December 2. Tickets on sale after Mass. Great auction items, excellent food and fellowship!
Visitation BVM Church
98 Richards Street
Ask the Medical Professional – Blood pressure screening, questions answered about medications, diabetes, nutrition, etc. Every first and third Sunday from 11 am – 1 pm in the church vestibule.
Healing Mass on Wednesday, November 8 at 7 pm in Spanish and on Friday, November 24 at 7 pm in English.
Mobile Soup Kitchen on Tuesdays from 1 pm – 2:30 pm and Fridays from 10 am – 12 noon (except first Fridays of the month).