By PAUL A. BARRA
COLUMBIA On May 15, the Rev. Mr. Roland L. Thomas will celebrate the silver jubilee of his ordination to the permanent diaconate. That day will mark one of four major anniversaries for him, but all of them sketch only the outline of a remarkable life.
Deacon Thomas served as a captain in the European theater of WWII, after being one of the few black men to win an appointment to Officer Candidate School. His retirement from the Army Reserves after 25 years of service marks the first anniversary.
Shortly before retiring, Lt. Col. Thomas married a schoolteacher named Vickie. Their 35th anniversary this year prompted this comment from the wry-minded church elder: “I’ve been married forever, although my only regret is that we did not get married earlier. We’ve been together as one ever since 1966.”
Meanwhile, the life of the Thomas couple moved along. Vickie continued to teach for another three decades, and her husband stayed on as a medical technologist for the Veterans Hospital. They both retired from their work in the same year, both after 37 years on the job. That was Deacon Thomas’ third anniversary.
The fourth, of course, is his diaconate ministry. After completing the five years of the first permanent deacon training in the Diocese of Charleston, he was ordained by Bishop Ernest Leo Unterkoefler and assigned to work the prisons of the Columbia area. Within three years, he was promoted by the Department of Corrections and serves today as Catholic chaplain for the Midlands. He is responsible for ministering to Catholic inmates in 10 area institutions. His paid position is being terminated by the current round of state budget cuts (see related story), but he will continue as a volunteer as he was when he started 25 years ago, in 1976.
“The prisoners expect me to come,” Deacon Thomas said. “We not only talk about the Scriptures but about life itself. I like to talk to them in plain language.”
One of the prisoners he spoke plainly to was a 15-year-old in juvenile jail named Jeff. The chaplain saw something in the young man and asked his wife to come meet him.
“They were getting ready to send him to adult prison, and we knew he didn’t belong there,” Deacon Thomas said.
Jeff belonged with the Thomas family, along with another adopted son, Donald. Raising a street-hardened teen-aged ex-con (the chaplain prefers to call them former inmates) wasn’t easy, and the couple admits to “shedding some tears over him,” but the results were what Vickie Thomas calls their best success story. Jeff Thomas is now married with three children of his own and works for Rutgers University in New Jersey. Younger son Donald is also married, with a child, and owns a business in California.
The Thomas boys are but two of the many children and adults whose lives have been touched by Deacon Thomas. He has two kitchen walls full of photos of them, including one grandniece about to graduate from college who lived with the Thomases for five years while her mother attended medical school. Dozens of former inmates call and write to Deacon Thomas every year to express their gratitude and friendship. And that’s not counting the parishioners of St. Martin de Porres Church, where Deacon Thomas “came with the first load of bricks” in 1935.
“Roland attends all three Masses every weekend and preaches one weekend a month,” said Franciscan Father Steven J. Pavignano, pastor at the predominantly black parish. “He goes to all the various council meetings and is pretty much around a lot.”
The Franciscan friar said that the deacon brings two great contributions to his parish ministry: “He brings a sense of the history of the parish and a sense of the African-American culture as it pertains to society as a whole and in particular to the Catholic Church. He is well respected by the parishioners.”
Deacon and priest share a philosophy of the role of deacons as the numbers of Catholic priests in the nation continues to shrink.
“The church has discerned a need for lay people to have an active role, and we are ordained to minister (to that need). We know what we can do and what we can’t, and we could be the right hand of the priests. We can help them and the people so much,” the deacon said.
Some people think he already has. He was “honored and recognized” by the South Carolina House of Representatives on June 12, 1999, for his service to the prisons of the state and to the people of Columbia. Prisoners at Manning Correctional Institution gave him a plaque that refers to him as “a life-sustaining vitamin.” Other awards, statements of praise and diplomas from Benedict College and the Chicago College of Medical Technology back up what the people think of Deacon Roland L. Thomas.