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Caroline County deacons provide a combined 60 years of devotion to St. Benedict/St. Elizabeth, priests

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Deacons William Nickum, left, and Harold Jopp Jr. flank retired Bishop Francis Malooly during a Mass celebrating the 125th anniversary of St. Benedict Roman Catholic Church in Denton on July 11. Photo courtesy John Walton

RIDGELY — For Deacons Hal Jopp and Bill Nickum, their vocations are simply a way to serve God by serving their fellow parishioners and priests.

But there’s nothing simple about the dedicated journeys that led to two ministry milestones.

Deacon Harold “Hal” Jopp Jr., 75, of Greensboro celebrated his 40th anniversary in the diaconate May 10, 2020, while Deacon William Nickum, 74, of Denton celebrated his 20th anniversary on November 17, 2021, as they serve the rural parish which includes St. Elizabeth of Hungary mission church in Denton.

Parishioners will celebrate their combined 60 years of service at 4 p.m. Saturday, March 26, with a Mass, followed by a reception at St. Benedict Catholic Church in Ridgely.

For Father Christopher Coffiey, who is younger than Jopp’s tenure in the diaconate, their help is invaluable.

“I think it’s excellent that we have three very good deacons,” Father Coffiey said. Deacon Adam Perza was ordained in 2021. “And I think it’s very important, especially because I’m the only priest in Caroline County. So when you’re running two parishes and you have a lot of baptisms like we do and funerals and things like that, it’s very helpful to have deacons to be able to do these things.”

“Another really good thing that I think the deacons help with is not just liturgical things, but also catechetical. They help teach the baptism classes and prepare couples for marriage, teach RCIA, do any of our faith formation, the homeschool group — whatever I tell them to do,” Father Coffiey said as Jopp and Nickum laughed.

Father Christopher R. Coffiey

“They also give me a lot of advice on things that happen in the parish and about (its) history,” he said. “When I have to do certain things for the parish and make big decisions, I always ask them what they think.”

“(Father) is extremely good about that,” Jopp said. “If he asks my opinion he values it. He’s going to have to make the decision. But if we know something he might not know, we share it.” The priest benefits from his deacons’ knowledge about what works in terms of liturgical logistics and interpersonal dynamics, he added.

“They were very beneficial to me because this was my first pastorate,” Father Coffiey said. “But (the pandemic) was also an unprecedented time.”

Both deacons said being cut off from people during the pandemic was the toughest time they had in ministry. “We do this for the people. That’s who we’re called to minister to. And not being with people — it’s just really tough,” Nickum said.

Their camraderie is marked by easy bantering and praise for each other’s gifts. While they have collaborated for years at the parish and diocesan levels, the two men took very different career paths.

When Jopp was ordained in 1980, he was vice president of Chesapeake College, a community college in Wye Mills, Maryland. The Caroline County native left his seminary studies in 1967, and went on to earn a law doctorate. He also earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English Literature, master’s degrees in Business Management and Theology, a doctorate in Education, and then a postgraduate certificate in spirituality and spiritual direction.

After earning his first master’s degree from the University of Delaware, “from then on it was 20 years in graduate school at night, commuting somewhere,” Jopp said “And then I was cured.”

He and his wife Margaret, a registered nurse, recently celebrated their 54th anniversary. They have two children.

“For many years I was the only deacon on the Eastern Shore. I would have meetings with myself” for about seven years, Jopp said. He served as diocesan Director of Deacons for 20 years, commuting to Wilmington two nights a week, staying in a rectory those nights. “I’m the last of my class still serving.”

“I was in the first class (of diocesan deacons) and the next group was seven years later. And then it was 20 years and you guys were next,” Jopp said, nodding at Nickum.

Nickum and his wife Linda have three children. Both native Kansans, they moved to Denton in 1992. Following his military service in Vietnam, he entered college on the GI Bill and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from Kansas University. His career focused on the aerospace industry, and at one point in the 1980s, he was approached about joining the astronaut corps. He turned it down and, using his management training, he eventually became director of advanced space systems at Lockheed Martin before moving on to General Dynamics where he became the manager for space systems on the East Coast. He was ordained a deacon in 2001 and retired from the space industry in 2011.

“My background was in the aerospace industries, in the space business, and running major programs. And so we’re used to being in control, right?” Nickum said. Deacons bring their career experience with them, but humility is essential and “that’s not sometimes the easiest thing to do,” he added.

Jopp and Nickum said they are both grateful for the collaborative relationship they have had with the priests appointed to the parish.

“You’ve really got to develop a spirituality and ministry that is built on humility,” Jopp said. “Our job is to assist the pastor. You’re going to have to fit into this life and enable it.”

Besides their liturgical and leadership skills, “it also helps that they’re very good preachers,” Father Coffiey said. “They’re very good to the people. They’re where the church is theologically and spiritually and politically.”

The rigorous discernment process and subsequent training is not for every man — or his wife, if he is married.

Both Jopp and Nickum say their wives’ buy-in was critical to their ministry. “The sacrifice of the wives is just incredible,” Jopp said. “They have to let us go to all these classes. And then after you’re done, it’s the ministry itself. Most of the time, whatever you’re doing you’re away (from home) — and then there are the weekends.”

Wives must consent to the journey, and much of the time, they are invited to attend classes with their husbands. If they decide they are not called to support their husband’s service in the diaconate, even at the last minute, his ordination will not proceed.

Highlights of their ministries were the ordination anniversary celebrations, memorable occasions for their serving together instead of at separate Masses.

“I’ll never forget my 10th anniversary,” Nickum said. “Hal and I were at Our Lady of Nock in Ireland assisting at Mass for my 10th anniversary together, and that was very, very special.”

Jopp celebrated his 30th ordination anniversary in Belgium with Nickum. Standing side-by-side in the crypt of St. Damien of Molokai for the first anniversary of his canonization were these two colleagues in ministry — and good friends.