From Public to Spiritual Works: Fred LaPiana Becomes Deacon

By JOSHUA SABATINI

Fred LaPiana of Tisbury has served his community's physical needs for nine years as director of the town's department of public works. But the man who often can be seen driving the roadways in a red public works truck will now help some Islanders meet their spiritual needs, too.

Mr. LaPiana, a member of St. Augustine's Parish in Vineyard Haven, became the Island's first Roman Catholic deacon last Saturday, following a two-and-a-half-hour ceremony at St. Anthony of Padua Church in New Bedford.

He said the moment when he was ordained as a deacon was "awesome."

Mr. LaPiana spoke to the Gazette this week on a sunny Wednesday afternoon at Veteran's Park. What he said reveals a man dedicated not only to a religious life but also to serving whatever community he finds himself a part of. He deliberated a short while after each question, and spoke calmly, often tersely.

Raised a Catholic in Eastham, Mr. LaPiana served as an altar boy and attended parochial school. He was a track and field athlete in high school and often squared off against the Vineyard's regional high school track and field team.

Soon after graduating, he entered the U.S. Navy and became a commander of its civil engineering corps. "I was doing the same thing I am doing here," said Mr. LaPiana, "except it was bigger."

He was involved in industrial construction and maintenance, and strangely enough found himself stationed mostly on islands, spending the majority of his service time on Hawaii, Iceland and Guam. During his time on Iceland, for example, he supervised a 250-man crew that helped maintain the military base and operate its facilities.

A key moment in Mr. LaPiana's life occured in the late 1980s when he was stationed in Guam. Someone told him that he should become a church deacon - a comment inspired, Mr. LaPiana supposed, by the good work he and his wife would do wherever they found themselves.

"It just planted the seed," said Mr. LaPiana.

After serving in the Navy for 15 years, Mr. LaPiana decided to take early retirement. "With my age being what it was, I thought it would be a good time to start a new career and take advantage of the opportunity," he said.

Mr. LaPiana, whose mother still lives in Eastham, said the Island is a lot like his home town 20 years ago. And the business of public works appealed to Mr. LaPiana because its mission is to serve the people.

So nine years ago, offered the chance to continue his career near where he grew up, he "decided to give it a shot," he said.

Mr. LaPiana and his wife Jill are going on their 25th year together; they have one daughter. They had always been heavily involved in music ministries - he plays the guitar "just a little bit" and sings - so after arriving on the Island it was only a few months before they started one at St. Augustine's.

After a few years he learned of the possibility of becoming a deacon through the Island parish and remembered what he had been told years earlier.

What attracted Mr. LaPiana to become a servant of the church?

"It is a calling to help people," he said. "I felt that. I had been feeling it for years, but couldn't tag it to anything other than a great adventure." He explained the "great adventure" as the presence of Christ in one's life, characterizing it as an always growing relationship.

"Anyone who lives their faith will go through that same relationship development process," he said, "and I also had that desire to assist and help people out."

For five years, Mr. LaPiana traveled twice a week to North Dartmouth to attend educational classes at Bishop Stang High School, beginning at 7:30 p.m. and concluding at 10 p.m. He would return to the Island the next morning.

The first step toward becoming a deacon is "for the diocese to get to know you and for you to get to know" the people there, said Mr. LaPiana. "It is a time to discover if the calling is in fact there."

After a year of what is called discernment, Mr. LaPiana spent the next four years studying various aspects of theology - reading, writing, and discussion aimed at "developing a closer relationship with God and the Holy Spirit."

The position of deacon in the early church, Mr. LaPiana said, comes from the New Testament, in Acts 6, wherein the apostles recognized the need for assistance in dealing with day-to-day issues so that they could devote themselves more toward prayer and their sacrament.

"That's what deacons are supposed to do," said Mr. LaPiana. "They basically communicate with the community at large on day-to-day issues and help out where they can."

Mr. LaPiana can now officiate at baptisms, weddings, wake services and funerals, and can preach and distribute holy communion.

The 16 others who became deacons last Saturday were only the sixth class over a period of more than 30 years. "The church has decided to institute the order of deacon, which went away for a number of years, in an effort to involve the laity more into the process of the church," said Mr. LaPiana.

This most recent step in Mr. LaPiana's life has received a variety of reactions from the Island community. "I think many folks don't really understand what a deacon is," he said. "It's new to some.

"They are all trying in a way to understand," he added. "Has my personality changed? Is this guy a saint or something? And the answer to any of them is no - I am certainly the same person I was days ago, weeks ago."

Mr. LaPiana said many have asked what they should call him now. "I guess the answer is, ‘Fred is a good name,'" he said.

Last Sunday, Mr. LaPiana delivered his first homily at a thanksgiving service at St. Augustine. Doing so, he said, felt good.

In a few years, he said, he may have some company. "There might be more [deacons] to come," he said. "Some folks have expressed interest to me about becoming deacons."

Mr. LaPiana expressed thanks to the Island community for helping him through the past five years: "The process is not an easy process. There is a lot of work.

"The power of prayer of the community has just been amazing," he said. "They have been very, very supporting. During times of doubt, I wouldn't have gotten through without it."