Deacon Alan Sims got a call from Deacon Ray Purvis, administrator of the diocesan Permanent Diaconate Office.
He said Bishop W. Shawn McKnight was looking for a deacon to be diocesan director of Catholic cemeteries — a position previously held by priests of the diocese.
Deacon Sims, who is assigned to assist the pastor of St. Stanislaus parish in Wardsville, had never served on a parish cemetery committee or done anything at all involving cemeteries.
Deacon Sims thought: “I don’t have any expertise in this area, but I’ll take it on as part of being a deacon.”
A couple of months later, he came upon a passage in Bishop McKnight’s book, Understanding the Diaconate: Historical, Theological and Sociological Foundations.
The section dealt with deacons and Catholic cemeteries: “For a certain period in the Church’s history (from at least the time of the episcopal deacon Callistus),” the bishop had written, “the local Church regularly entrusted the administration of cemeteries to deacons. The same could happen again if the local Church were to deem such a ministry worthwhile for the diaconate.”
Turns out, Deacon Sims had more relevant experience than he thought he had.
He had spent 20 years working as a contracts manager for General Electric Co. before retiring in 2011 and moving to central Missouri.
“I worked on negotiating and administrating contracts for maintenance jobs at power plants,” he said. “I didn’t have any administrative authority, I didn’t have control of personnel or budgets or money, but I did have to read and understand these contracts and maybe persuade some vice president or some other person at the approval level, why he should or should not agree to something.”
As diocesan director of cemeteries, he holds no binding authority over individual parish cemetery boards of trustees.
“But if there’s some sort of dispute — and it usually boils down more than anything to a communication problem — I can invite the parties back together to mediate a solution,” he said.
“I can’t tell either party what to do,” he noted. But I can help keep the doors of communication open for those who do have that authority.
“That’s what I had to do all the time for GE,” he said.
He said he must also familiarize himself with the corporate formalities and protocols for properly running and maintaining a cemetery.
He’s found that especially in rural areas, cemeteries “are often run pretty informally.”
“And that might not necessarily be a bad thing,” he said. “The cemeteries seem to be running okay. But at some point, they have to pass that administration on to somebody else. And that’s when it helps to have concrete records, rules and regulations.”
He noted that it is one of the Church’s basic pastoral duties to provide a proper place of burial for our faithful departed.
“Not every parish has a cemetery,” he said. “But if we are going to have them, we do need some standards that we observe so that we’re able to provide that service and people can rely on it.
“People may buy a plat, and it may be 30 years before they need it,” he said. “If they buy it, they have to be able to rely that there’s going to be a place that’s at least somewhat similar to what it looked like when they bought it.”
For those who have passed from this world to the next, a cemetery is a place for their earthly remains to await the Resurrection.
For their living relatives, it is a place of emotional connection and a symbol of hope for eternal life.
Sharing what he’s learned
Deacon Sims said he’s “I’m just an ordinary guy who has had an extraordinary opportunity to learn a lot about Catholicism.”
“And it is of little use if what I have learned is not shared with others,” he said.
Born in Kilgore, Texas, he grew up in Houston. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a Juris Doctor degree in law.
While assigned to Missouri during construction of Ameren UE’s Callaway Nuclear Plant, he met “a nice Catholic girl” named Christine Lock, a Jefferson City native.
They eventually became husband and wife. Deacon Sims was received into the Catholic Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in 1990.
They have three adult children.
“As I became more involved in the Church, I also looked for new ways to be of service,” he said.
He entered formation for the permanent diaconate in the Atlanta archdiocese after becoming very active in his former parish, Mary Our Queen in Norcross, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.
Two priests from the Confraternity of Franciscans of the Renewal once gave a weeklong mission at the parish. Later, they established a humanitarian outreach in Honduras and invited Mary Our Queen parishioners to visit.
Groups began making annual visits to to the mission and doing service work there.
Deacon Sims went at least six times, helping to build houses and doing other kinds of service work.
There, he got a firsthand view of the effects of crippling poverty and a lack of priests to help people grow in their relationship with God.
A friend from the parish, Deacon Joe Ruberte, was ordained in 2000. He and the pastor, Father David Dye, helped influence Deacon Sims to enter formation.
“While he was in formation, Joe would tell me about things they were doing, that they were experiencing,” Deacon Sims recalled. “I thought I’d like to learn about all of that.”
He began to wonder whether he, too, was being called to be a deacon.
But he confided to Fr. Dye his doubts about his own worthiness to be a deacon.
“Right away, he said, ‘You have to get over that because you are not worthy. And I’m not worthy to be a priest. Don’t worry if your worthy or not because nobody is,’” Deacon Sims recalled.
He undertook his first three years of diaconal formation in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
After retiring, he moved with his wife to Wardsville and asked to become a deacon candidate for this diocese.
Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos ordained him and 19 other men permanent deacons in 2013.
Since then, Deacon Sims assists at Mass, preaches a Sunday homily about once a month, teaches young people to be altar servers, and occasionally helps out with classes for confirmation candidates and RCIA.
He has taken part in two mission trips with the Jefferson City diocese — one to India, another to the Philippines.
“I want to keep doing homilies,” he said. “You learn something every time you do it. And you don’t get any better at it if you don’t practice.”