Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian
The Catholic Virginian can’t take credit for Deacon John Kren discerning the call to the permanent diaconate in late 1997 and early 1998, but an article in the Dec. 15, 1997 issue might have encouraged him to answer that call.
Deacon Kren, whom Bishop Barry C. Knestout named as part-time director of the Diocese of Richmond’s Office of Permanent Diaconate on Monday, Jan. 21, saw an article about Bishop Walter F. Sullivan having ordained David Nemetz a permanent deacon at St. Michael Parish, Glen Allen.
As he read the article, Deacon Kren, who was active in his parish, St. Mark, Virginia Beach, as a lector, parish council member and extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, thought, “Gee, I could do that.”
After attending diaconate information nights, he thought, “You know, this really interests me.”
Although there was no formal deacon program at the time but wanting to “get a leap on this deacon thing,” as he described it, Deacon Kren started seeing signs that he should pursue it.
He was getting on I-64, heading from Virginia Beach to Hampton, for a pastoral leadership presentation.
“And as I pulled onto 64, coming down the acceleration ramp and pulling out into the traffic, on the car in front of me, the license was ‘Follow me,’” he said.
Bishop Sullivan ordained Deacon Kren in March 2003.
From classroom to ship
A native of Bethlehem, Pa., and raised in Fort Ewen, New York, Deacon Kren’s first 16 years of formal education were in Catholic schools, including an undergraduate degree from Marist College, where he majored in physics and minored in math.
Wanting to practice his interview skills during his senior year, Deacon Kren was sent by his adviser to a nearby Catholic school where they needed a math teacher.
“I had no background in education whatsoever. I went down to the interview, the principal interviewed me, and she kept saying, ‘I can’t offer you the job now. I have to talk to the monsignor,’” he said about the job he did not want.
Nonetheless, they offered it, and he taught math to seventh and eighth graders for a year and a half, in addition to coaching the sailing team at Marist.
The self-described “science/math guy” had to deal with another number — 19. It was his draft lottery number. He opted to enlist in the Navy in 1972.
“They commissioned me. I went in as an ensign and did nothing but cruisers and destroyers for the first 12 years. They put me on an amphibious ship. Then they went back to frigates,” Deacon Kren said. “Finally, I retired as the operational test director for Arleigh Burke.”
He explained that the operational test and evaluation is the Navy’s way of making sure that the combat system fits the operator.
“If you take a look at the original draft of the drawings of a computer mouse, it was actually like three buttons and a box. Well, the operational test director would say, ‘Yes, it meets functionality, but you can’t use it for extended periods of time,’ so you do the modifications,” Deacon Kren explained. “So not only does the weapons developer have to develop a sophisticated and lethal weapon, but the operator has to be able to operate that system. Without those two working congruently, you end up with a system that does not work.”
Back to school
When he finished his Navy career in 1994 with the rank of commander, Deacon Kren and his wife, Chris, who will be married 42 years next month, had to decide where to live.
“My wife was just getting into real estate, and we didn’t know where we were going to live, where we wanted to move, because we had lived up and down the east coast from Maine to Florida,” he said. “The joke we always say is that we got married and moved to Boston. Our first son was born in Boston. We went to Newport, Rhode Island. Newport to Brunswick, Maine. Brunswick, Maine, to Mayport, Florida. Mayport, Florida, to Norfolk, Virginia, in time for his third birthday.”
The Krens have three sons and three grandchildren.
Deacon Kren resumed his career in education, earning a master’s degree from Old Dominion and completing doctoral studies in educational leadership at the same school. He is certified as a principal, and to teach math and science, students with learning disabilities and those who are emotionally disturbed and mentally challenged. After a couple of years at Great Bridge High School, he was invited to teach at the Chesapeake Juvenile Services (when it was known as Tidewater Detention School) where has been for the last 17 years.
He immersed himself in the challenges that this educational environment presented.
“When I first started in the detention home, the average stay of any child was 15 days — calendar days, not school days. So, as a teacher, you pick up a kid who walks in. You have to assess where they are very quickly. And then you start providing them an education service in that subject area,” Deacon Kren said. “And 1997 CV article factor in answering call to ordained ministry then two weeks later, they’re gone. And it’s not just one kid, it’s the entire class is doing this, and not necessarily on the same schedule. What I loved about it was every day was different. Every day you had a different kid in front of you.”
In the midst of educating students in academics and life skills, and seeking ways to enhance the program, Deacon Kren opted to forgo the dissertation needed to earn his doctorate and pursued diaconal formation through classes held at St. Michael Parish, Glen Allen, which were provided by St. Meinrad School of Theology.
Evaluating the program
As a deacon, Deacon Kren developed the marriage preparation program at St. Mark Parish, and was part of the team that developed UnVeiled, the Diocese of Richmond’s marriage preparation program. He and his wife are also facilitators for another marriage preparation program, Facilitating Open Couple Communication Understanding and Study (FOCCUS). For the past 13 years, he has served as vicariate deacon for the Eastern Vicariate.
As director of the Office of Permanent Diaconate, Deacon Kren, who reports to the vicar for clergy, is helping evaluate the program.
“We don’t anticipate a very large change in how we do business now. We want to be able to bring as many men and their wives into the Church for service,” he said of the five-year program. “That will require not only formation classes, but also continuing formation of the existing deacons.”
He praised the commitment of deacons and the gifts they bring to their ministry.
“Each have their own way of addressing ministry, and I think that shows that God comes in so many different ways and mannerisms and words and cultures, and it just truly enriches the entire area,” Deacon Kren said. “The whole Church becomes better off because of being able to have a wide variety of cultures, languages, etc.”
He added, “There are many signs and symbols.”
Even a license plate that reads: “Follow me.”