September 22, 2023

A ‘servant to the servants’: Transition in leadership marks growth in ministry of deacons in archdiocese

Deacon Michael East, left, and Deacon David Bartolowits pose with an icon of St. Lawrence on Aug. 6 during a dinner for archdiocesan deacons at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis. The icon was a gift to Deacon East who had retired the previous month after 12 years of service as archdiocesan director of deacons. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Deacon Michael East, left, and Deacon David Bartolowits pose with an icon of St. Lawrence on Aug. 6 during a dinner for archdiocesan deacons at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis. The icon was a gift to Deacon East who had retired the previous month after 12 years of service as archdiocesan director of deacons. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

The first class of permanent deacons in the history of the archdiocese was ordained 15 years ago on June 28, 2008.

One of those men ordained that day was Deacon Michael East. Since then and until recently, his mission was to be a “servant of the servants.”

From 2008-11, Deacon East ministered as the archdiocesan associate director of deacons. In 2011, he began 12 years of service as director of deacons, a role from which he retired on July 1.

“It’s not a feather in your cap to sit in this chair,” said Deacon East in an interview with The Criterion in the office for the director of deacons in the Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis shortly before he retired.

“You’re not any better than anyone else. You’re here to help where you can and stay out of the way the rest of the time.”

Being a “servant to the servants” hit home for Deacon East not long after his ordination when one of the men ordained with him, Deacon Ronald Stier of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Richmond, died of cancer on Aug. 24, 2008.

“I was at home in Seymour when I got the word,” Deacon East recalled. “My wife and I were getting ready for a family function. I said, ‘I’ve got to go.’ And I took off for Richmond.”

That episode early in his life and ministry as a deacon helped him come to grips with the reality that permanent deacons as clergy have a life with one foot fully in the Church, and as husbands and fathers have one foot firmly in the world. It’s a balancing act he’s honed over the years and helped his brother deacons refine in their own lives.

A challenge of his ministry in helping to lead the deacons of the archdiocese beginning in 2008 was that permanent deacons were a new phenomenon for all Catholics in the archdiocese—for parish priests as well as their parishioners.

As all archdiocesan Catholics got used to deacons in the years that followed the historic 2008 ordination, Deacon East said it was his job “to try to smooth out the bumps in the road” in deacons ministering in parishes and in the broader community in places such as jails, hospitals, nursing homes and charitable agencies.

In 2008, deacons were unknown in the archdiocese. In 2023, after three more permanent diaconate ordinations, their place in the life of the Church in central and southern Indiana is well-established.

When the first class of 25 deacons was ordained in 2008, there were 26 parishes in the archdiocese where deacons were assigned to minister. Today, that number has more than doubled to 53 parishes.

“Back in the early days, the question from the pastors was, ‘What do I do with this guy?’ ” Deacon East said. “Now, the question is, ‘How do I get one?’

“I’m proud to be a part of that. But I take no credit at all for any of it. The deacons have done a good job in assisting their parishes and their pastors.”

As he approached his retirement, Deacon East had a message for the 69 archdiocesan deacons who minister across central and southern Indiana who were ordained in groups in 2008, 2012, 2017 and 2022.

“Every class is a little different,” Deacon East said. “But with every class, the understanding of the diaconate and the impact that the diaconate has on the archdiocese grows.

“The biggest thing for deacons is for them always to remember that it’s not about them. It’s about taking our Lord to the people.”

Deacon East turned 65 on the day he was ordained in 2008. He celebrated his 80th birthday two days before he retired in July.

Deacon David Bartolowits now serves as director of deacons for the archdiocese.

“I think David is an ideal person for the job,” said Deacon East of the man to sit in his chair after him. “He’s got the personality for it. He’s got the education and the knowledge for it.”

He also spoke of the experience Deacon Bartolowits has gained in ministering at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis since his ordination in 2017. The downtown faith community is bustling with activity with a robust but always changing young adult community, many weddings and the need to show hospitality to a constant flow of out-of-town visitors to the adjacent Indiana Convention Center.

For his part, Deacon Bartolowits gives a lot of credit for who he is as a deacon to the men who came before him in that ministry in the archdiocese.

“We learn from experience,” Deacon Bartolowits said. “We have these gentlemen who’ve had experiences that can give us the reality of what we can expect, how to address challenges. We cherish the wisdom that they offer.

“You can read all the books and go to all the classes that you want, but you need to have those men who went before you to help you with real-life experiences of ministry.”

Months before he was ordained in 2017, Deacon Bartolowits retired after being a violinist for 35 years for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Now in leading deacons in the archdiocese, does he see himself as a conductor of a symphony of deacons?


“Ultimately, the conductor is the archbishop [Charles C. Thompson],” Deacon Bartolowits said. “It’s really his responsibility. We’re his guys. We’re here to fulfill the Church’s mission and how he envisions our work in the archdiocese. My role is to communicate his vision to our deacons.”

He also wants his ministry to be in continuity with how Deacon East carried it out.

“I look at my position as one of service,” Deacon Bartolowits said. “How can I help the deacons be the most effective in their work? I’m here to serve, to make their jobs easier. That’s the bottom line.”

He would also like to see deacons serving in more parishes and the number of men discerning a possible diaconal vocation grow.

“There are parishes that I know want deacons,” Deacon Bartolowits said. “One of the challenges of parishes that don’t have deacons is that they don’t know who deacons are. It can be hard for men in those parishes to feel the call to be a deacon.

“Is there a way for us going forward to help those parishes get to understand who deacons are … so that we can get some of their men interested in discernment?”

In seeking to help build on the foundation of the service of deacons laid in the archdiocese during the past 15 years, Deacon Bartolowits leans hard on prayer. It’s a priority he hopes to encourage in his 69 brother deacons who minister with him in central and southern Indiana.

“I want to make sure to help the guys when they’re struggling to focus on what’s important,” he said. “I really want to emphasize that a life of prayer is a foundation upon which everything else is possible. Without it, nothing is possible at the end of the day.”

(For more information on the permanent diaconate in central and southern Indiana, call 317-236-1493, e-mail or go to

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