Editor’s Note: For this week’s interview, we sat down with Deacon Francis M. Gaffney and his longtime wife, Joanne M. Gaffney, who are trained volunteer leaders in the Saugus Catholics Collaborative. Earlier this month (Oct. 2), they were among more than 120 local Catholics from across the Boston Archdiocese who received 2022 Bishop Cheverus Award Medals, which were presented by Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley at the Cathedral in Boston. The award is intended to honor local Catholics for longtime service to the Church, particularly those who do so without public recognition. Cardinal O’Malley described the Cheverus Award as honoring the “unsung heroes and heroines” of the archdiocese. The prestigious award is named for Bishop Cheverus, who was the founding Bishop of Boston and led the Diocese from 1808 until his return to France in 1824. He died in 1836 as the archbishop of Bordeaux.
Deacon Frank and Joanne celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary on Aug. 25. They have lived in their Glen Park Avenue home since 1968.They have four children (three who are Saugus High graduates), seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Deacon Frank was born in 1939 in South Boston, lived in Chelsea and moved to Saugus in 1968. Frank is a 1956 graduate of Chelsea High School. He is a 1961 graduate of Northeastern University with a B.S. in electrical engineering and a M.S. degree in engineering management. He is a Licensed Professional Electrical Engineer in Massachusetts. He is a U.S. Army veteran – 1962 to 1964 – 1st Lieutenant; he served at Fort Gordon, Georgia, Fort Monmouth, N.J., and with Armed Forces Southern Europe, NATO, in Naples, Italy. He was ordained as a Permanent Deacon in 1988. Deacon Frank served at Sacred Heart Parish in Lynn for seven years and at Immaculate Conception Parish for 11 years and now at Blessed Sacrament & St. Margaret’s in Saugus – now the Saugus Catholics Collaborative – since 1995. He earned Senior Permanent Deacon status in 2014. He worked at Boston Edison Co. from 1961 to 1988 and for the Town of Danvers from 1989 to retirement in 2008. He is an Honorary Life Member of Knights of Columbus – 3rd & 4th degree. He has been a member of the Saugus Faith Community – formerly Saugus Clergy Association – since 2008.
Joanne was born in 1943 in Chelsea, lived in Revere and moved to Saugus in 1968. She is a 1961 graduate of St. Rose High School in Chelsea. After her marriage to Deacon Frank, she moved to Naples, Italy. She worked for the Archdiocese of Boston from 1988 until retirement in 2009 as Assistant Director of Hospital & Prison Chaplaincy.
Some highlights of this week’s interview follow.
Q: Please tell me about this medal you each got from the church and what it means, why it’s important, how you looked upon it before you were a recipient.
Joanne: We didn’t know who nominated us, and it turned out it was Bishop O’Connell, and that meant a lot to me – that he would recognize the work that we’ve done. And you know, Deacons don’t get paid, so we just volunteered all of these years. We feel, in some ways, we’re slowing down as we age. I think we are. But over the years, we have done a lot.
And we’re blessed to be acknowledged. We did 40 years of marriage prep programs, and we did an awful lot in the other parishes before we came to Saugus. So, it just means a lot. We were very shocked, very surprised that we were recognized. It really meant a lot to us. It really meant a lot to me because I worked for the archdiocese for 21 years. So, I have a great love for my church. It felt very nice to be honored.
Q: Deacon Frank, do you want to share your thoughts about this?
Deacon Frank: I got the letter. I didn’t read the full heading, but it did say Deacon Francis and Joanne Gaffney. I almost threw it away, and I really wasn’t that interested in what it had to say. But I opened it up and it said “Congratulations,” and it said it was from the cardinal, saying we had been selected to receive the medal. Then I said, “Wow! That’s news to me.” I knew about it [the medal], but I didn’t know that much about it.
Q: This is a pretty prestigious medal.
Deacon Frank: Oh yeah. Then I looked at the letter, and I called up and learned that it had her name on it, which made me more thrilled. I loved to see her get a commendation. So when I called up and learned that her name was on it,” I said, “Ah, this is wonderful!” I moved toward her and said, “You’re getting a medal, too!”
That was good. It’s recognition that was deserved. We’ve done a lot of work. Deacon’s work.
Q: Could you summarize the work that you’ve done?
Deacon Frank: Baptisms, weddings, funerals, wakes, veterans’ services – right now, we’re doing the Social Justice Committee. We were working on a five-year plan a few years ago. One of the things was to start a Social Justice Committee, and the only one who volunteered was me, because I’m very much into social justice, and Joanne also.
But the way it works, I’ll get a call, “Frank, can you do a funeral service?” And I’ll do the funeral service. So, whatever comes up, and I’m around, I do it. I preach once a month. Most of the people who hear my sermons like it. I serve Mass just about every Sunday and special Masses.
Joanne: We can go on vacation now that we’re retired.
Deacon Frank: We got a son down in Florida.
Q: What about the stuff you’ve done in Saugus? Please focus on Saugus and the work that’s being recognized by this award.
Joanne: Well, I lecture at Mass. I’m on the Liturgy Board. As I said, we do the Social Justice Committee. I’m in the women’s group.
Deacon Frank: A lot of things we do, we do from home. We don’t do a lot of it at the parish. We don’t see a lot of what we do because anything I have is here [in his house]. I can’t take my full library with me. I don’t do too much in the parish buildings themselves. We belong to the collaborative and we counsel people.
Q: Can you talk about Deacon so people can understand what a Deacon is? You mentioned before we got started that there’s a little misunderstanding about Deacon. Maybe we can talk about that a little.
A: I’m a Deacon. I’m clergy. I’ve been ordained. Only the Bishop can do me. I want to make sure people understand that Deacons are members of the clergy and we’re not paid. In some dioceses, Deacons get paid, but I don’t think they get paid much.
Joanne: I think part of the problem is that in the Baptist community, Deacons are not ordained. So, people get confused. But in the early church in the scriptures, the Deacons were ordained.
Deacon Frank: There have always been Deacons that they call “Transitional Deacons” to become priests. Every Priest, every Bishop, the Pope are all ordained.
Q: Anything else you want to say about this before we move on?
A: Yes. The other thing I want to mention – not many couples get this award; it’s usually either the husband or the wife. But the woman usually gets the medal, because the woman does an awful lot of work for the church. Not that men don’t. Men do a lot of work, too. I would say the women are probably the mainstays of the church.
Q: My impression in reading your credentials, Joanne, is that you would be a Deacon if women were allowed by the Catholic Church. And if they did allow Deacons, you would be a Deacon.
Joanne: Well, I didn’t take the test. They all had tests and homework, and I didn’t do that. I just went to the classes. Some dioceses offer the woman a degree if they take the test, or whatever. But I knew they weren’t going to do anything for me, so I didn’t take the test. And I was working.
Q: Is it accurate to say that you would be a woman Deacon if the Catholic Church did have women Deacons?
Joanne: It wouldn’t be accurate in the sense that I went to all of those classes, but I would have to do all of the homework. And I didn’t do any of it.
Deacon Frank: I think the question would be “Would you become a Deacon if you had a chance?”
Joanne: Oh, perhaps. (She laughs.)
Q: Well, I’m looking at your background, and it sure looks like you would be qualified to be a Deacon.
Deacon Frank: She would be a great one.
Joanne: Thank you, babe!
Deacon Frank: Well, I just wanted to say it.
Joanne: I know.
Q: One thing I would like you to share with the readers … We were talking on background before, about how you have been sober for 48 years and have overcome alcohol addiction and related problems.
Deacon Frank: Yes, it will be 48 years December 9. Many times, we’ve gone out to eat, and I said, “I’ve just passed my anniversary.” But what I want to say is that I wouldn’t be here as a person, I wouldn’t be here as a Deacon, I wouldn’t be here as either a father or a husband if I hadn’t stopped drinking. I would have died.
Q: And part of your attack plan was you dedicated your life to the Church? You credit the alcohol experience as to why you got active in the church?
Deacon Frank: That’s one of the main things that happened to me – understanding that I couldn’t have done it sober if it wasn’t for God. God had a great part in that. I think he was leading me somewhere, and I didn’t realize that until I looked back on my life and I could see the different things that have happened. Then you realize God is working in your life.
I always try to tell people, “Always think of God out there, way out there somewhere. But he’s here. He’s here and he’s working in your life constantly. The problem is, you have to be able to sit down and look at your life and see where God is acting in your life. You’d be surprised. He’s acting in your life every single day. You know, he’s given each of us gifts and we’re supposed to use those gifts to help others.”
And I think over the years – as I said before – the more sober I got, the more I realized that God was working in my life. The more interested I became – not only in learning about Jesus, God and eternity but also about my church and what happens in my church – how I could help people, because I like helping people. It’s such a gift.
Q: How bad did it get before you started to come to grips with your alcohol problem? Come to terms with the problem?
Deacon Frank: I wasn’t too good. I wasn’t too good. I drank every day. On Thursdays and the weekend, I was really bad. I was a functioning alcoholic. I could function.
Q: Did you drink on the job?
Deacon Frank: We didn’t really drink on the job. I drank at lunch.
Q: Liquid lunch.
Deacon Frank: Liquid lunch; not completely; I always ate well. I knew that much about alcoholism that I didn’t want to ruin my liver, so I made sure that I ate, which helped a great deal. But, oh my God, I would remember coming back from lunch sometimes and feeling no pain whatsoever. My father used to work at the same company. I used to drive him home, and he would say to my wife, “Well, we played ‘bet your life again.”
Q: Joanne? So, you hung with him. Did you give him an ultimatum, “Clean up your act”?
Joanne: Well, I stayed with him, mainly because I loved him, and I could see the goodness in him. And I was very worried about him. But I was beginning to think I couldn’t take much more – really. And my children; I was worried about my children. He always…
Q: A good family man?
Joanne: Yeah. He was always very kind. He was never abusive when he was drinking. He would just sleep it off a lot. So I felt lonely because I felt he wasn’t with us many times. But I don’t think he realized how close we came to … I started thinking aloud. What could I do to go to work or to support myself, who would take care of the kids?
Q: In most marriages where you get situations like that, it’s over and you move on.
Joanne: Yeah. Yeah. I just kept hoping that he would sober up. I really did.
Q: But keeping the family together and his good qualities kept him in the game, I guess.
Joanne: Yes. Yes. But the kids loved him very much. I didn’t want them to not have their dad.
Deacon Frank: One thing that I would like to make sure is that people understand is you can’t quit drinking with somebody else. She could have given me the ultimatum, but I probably still would have kept on drinking. Eventually, some die if they don’t stop. But you only stop if you quit for yourself. And I never quit until it got bad. That’s what happens: When you reach your bottom – unfortunately, the bottom can be death for some people – but when you reach your bottom, you know at that point that you have to quit, otherwise you are going to die.
Q: Did you make a promise with God …
Deacon Frank: No, I don’t make promises.
Q: Did you ask God for help?
Deacon Frank: Every single morning; every single morning. It got so bad that I was asking God, “Could you get me through the next five minutes without a drink?” That’s what I learned; I learned to pray; I learned to pray to keep me sober.
Q: At what point did you decide you were going to get into the Deacon thing?
Deacon Frank: Oh, that was years later, after a lot of studying and a lot of getting into scripture – Bible study – Bible class. I learned a lot about the church. And at one point, somebody mentioned about becoming a Deacon, and I said, “What the heck is a Deacon?” I really didn’t know too much about it. I know we had Deacons. But I didn’t know what they were.
And I started reading up on it and I said, “Gee, it looks like I might like that, but is that really what I want?” And when I saw the paper one time and they were taking applications for diaconate, a friend said I’d make a good one. After much interviewing and being accepted into the classes and all those interviews – and it was a very scary and stressful process, every year.
Then you’d have a one-year internship. I interned at St. Joseph’s Hospital up in Lowell. And my first patient was an AIDS patient – very sad – it was a young lady and she died. We all had to go through something like that. That’s when you learn “Is this what you want?” It’s what I wanted.
Q: Joanne, do you want to add something to the conversation?
Joanne: I went to the internship with him, which was quite a good experience. And, actually, that’s how I got my job. The priest that we had to report to at that hospital – eventually, when I was looking for work, he [Deacon Frank] mentioned that I was looking for work, and the priest said, “Oh, why don’t you come here? And I was hired and worked for the Diocese for 21 years after that. So, it’s funny how God works in your life. That experience led to my employment. After the marriage encounter, we remained together. If that’s where he was going, that’s where I was going. And it worked out.
Q: Deacon Frank, how many years were you an alcoholic? How long did you have the drinking problem?
Deacon Frank: A problem? Oh, I don’t know when you cross the line from being a problem to being an alcoholic.
Q: When alcohol becomes a problem to you health wise, emotionally, financially …
Deacon Frank: Oh, when you think of all of the money I spent on booze at the time – I was smoking, too, at the same time.
Q: Which is not a good combination.
Deacon Frank: I’ve been off of cigarettes now for 44 years. I knew I had a drinking problem, but I didn’t look upon it as being an alcoholic at the time. I would now, but I wouldn’t back then. “Alcoholic? Oh no, that wasn’t me,” I said back then. “Na! Na!” – until I went to the hospital and I sobered up.
Q: How old are you now?
Deacon Frank: I’m 83. I’ll be 84 in March.
Q: 83 minus the 48 [years of sobriety]. That’s 35. You were 35 when you decided to give it up.
Deacon Frank: I drank heavily from the time I was in the service …1962. I drank before then, not as much. I was a first lieutenant in the Army over in NATO. When Joanne arrived after me being there a week, the waiters knew what I was drinking, and they put it down. I was well on my way from 1962 on.
Q: Anything else that you would like to share that hasn’t been said in the interview?
Deacon Frank: I would say that if there is any young man out there that is thinking about becoming active in the church or doing anything, I would think that the best thing you could do is to help others. My job as a Deacon – I’m ordained as a servant of Christ, trying to show people that everyone of us who is baptized, being Christians, we are to follow Jesus. And Jesus was a servant. The Deacon is a sign of that service – a sign of how much Jesus loves his people by helping them. I’m trying to get people to help people.
Joanne: I guess I would say that there’s no joy like the joy of involvement in a faith community. It has added so much to our lives, and I don’t know how people exist without faith. I really don’t. I don’t know how they face the daily troubles – the heartaches that people face – without Jesus at their side.
Q: Anything else?
Deacon Frank: So many people say, “I don’t go to church. I’m spiritual and I pray.” Well, who are you praying to? If you’re on your own, you are manufacturing your own God. When you go to a church, you’re with all of these people. And that’s where the Holy Spirit works. It works through the people. It works through the Priest. It works through the Deacon. It works through all of the people that you are involved with. There you find the true God, not the God that you think you know, because you can manufacture your own God to do anything you like to do.
So that’s why I tell people, “If you can go, go to church.” And if you go to church, become active. Do something.