By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – Deacon William E. Champagne was honored for his 16 years of service as a permanent deacon by Our Lady of Hope Parish on North Broad Street last Saturday. At this point his service is limited to faithful witness because at 81 he is living with dementia. It’s fitting that Lenora, his wife of 60 years, is his spokesperson. More than anyone, she has been his companion on his life journey and his faith journey.

From the time he was very young, his goal was to become a deacon. That may sound odd because back then the Catholic Church did not ordain permanent deacons. But, he was not Catholic. He was a committed Christian in the Baptist tradition and active in his own faith community, which was served by lay deacons.

As a teen, Deacon Champagne was a friend of Lenora Robinson’s brother, and she was an equally committed birth Catholic who attended daily Mass at South Philadelphia’s St. Thomas Aquinas Church.

He took a strong liking to her to the point he wanted to go to Mass with her. She wasn’t buying that line, and would actually run to church to avoid him. Her future plans were very clear; a Catholic husband and kids who attended Catholic school.

Deacon Champagne went away to serve in the Army, and that should have been the end of that. But guess what? He took instructions and was baptized Catholic while he was stationed in Virginia, and that impressed Lenora. He was 21 and she was 20 when they were married at St. Thomas Church on July 14, 1950.

After the service, he began his career in printing with General Electric and eventually opened his own shop. Over time the family lived in St. Thomas, St. Charles Borromeo and, finally, Holy Child Parish, a forerunner to Our Lady of Hope.

Faith was important to a household which grew to include five children – Michelle, Maria, Bill, Monique and Maurice. When they would come home from the children’s Mass their father would grill them on what they heard in the readings and the homily. “Do the right thing,” and “God is in charge” were constant refrains as Deacon Champagne mentored his children, and family prayer was a tradition.

Education was important too. Although he never became rich every one of the Champagne children achieved either a master’s degree or doctorate in their chosen field.

At his parishes, especially Holy Child, he was up for any task the pastor suggested – RCIA, Legion of Mary, marriage counseling, whatever.

It was Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father Richard Leone at Holy Child who suggested he enter the permanent diaconate program, which he did, with Lenora at his side every step of the way. He was the only African-American in his class, but he added a special zest. “The Rambo of the Ambo” his classmates nicknamed him for his forceful preaching style.

Deacon Champagne continued to work energetically to spread the faith, and it is only the recent onset of dementia that curtailed his active ministry.

The rosary was once his constant prayer; now he prays the Our Father and Hail Mary with Lenora. He no longer gives others Communion, now extraordinary ministers of holy Communion bring it to him.

Sure, life has changed, but “when I talk, he smiles, and when I give him food he says, ‘God bless you,'” Lenora said. “The way I look at it, we had a good life and I’m still very thankful.”

One suspects Deacon Champagne would second that.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.