‘He’s ready to get to work in Detroit’: Friends, former coworkers elated to see new auxiliary bishop returning to his roots
SHELBY TOWNSHIP — Carrie Dekoski remembers the first homily Bishop Jeffrey M. Monforton delivered at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township in 2005. Or, to be more specific, she remembers the prop the then-newly installed pastor used: a cellphone.
Fr. Monforton, as he was known then, made a good first impression using a cellphone, back when cellphones weren’t as ubiquitous, to act out a conversation with God. It was a sign that Fr. Monforton, the second pastor in the parish’s history, was going to be an approachable leader.
“He put the phone up to his ear like he was having a conversation with God,” Dekoski recalled. “That is how he did his first homily, and it caught people off guard, thinking, ‘Huh, this is really interesting.’ It wasn’t the same old, same old; he got their attention.”
It was Fr. Monforton’s first assignment as a pastor, and not an enviable one. The former priest-secretary to Cardinal Adam J. Maida — who will inaugurate his ministry as the Archdiocese of Detroit's 32nd auxiliary bishop on Nov. 7 — was replacing Fr. Tom Sutherland, who founded St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in 1991.
Succeeding a popular pastor is always a difficult assignment, but filling the shoes of the founding pastor is another challenge entirely, one Fr. Monforton took with his own sense of pastoral style, Dekoski said.
“Our parish was only 13 years old when he came in; a lot of parishioners were still those founding members,” Dekoski said. “Fr. Tom was so beloved by the founding members of the parish who were involved with volunteer work, parish council, the office staff, but Bishop Jeff took the transition very well, understanding what type of situation he was coming into.”
Dekoski and her husband, Kurt, were young adult representatives for St. Therese of Lisieux at the vicariate level and got to see up close how Fr. Monforton governed the parish.
“As an engineer, I’ve attended a number of conferences and read a bunch of things on leadership, and Bishop Monforton exemplifies a lot of qualities in leadership in the way he relates to people and the way he communicates,” Kurt Dekoski said. “He’s very thoughtful, very deliberate in his actions, and it comes down to ensuring he is caring for the people and doing what is best for them.”
Fr. Monforton, later named Msgr. Monforton in 2005, impressed the parish staff with his ability to make quick decisions and be succinct with what he expected from parish leadership and serving parishioners.
“He was a team player in the office, always prayerful in his decisions, but it didn’t take him forever to make a decision, either,” said Linda Maccarone, who was the office manager at St. Therese of Lisieux during Bishop Monforton’s tenure. “You always knew where he stood on things. He would dictate his homilies or letters, and I’d transcribe, and he’d do them in one take. He was very succinct in his message; he knew off the top of his head what he wanted to say.”
Maccarone, who now serves on the staff at St. Mary Parish in Royal Oak, said Bishop Monforton would have one-on-one meetings with parish staff to discuss their roles, how to better serve parishioners and grow as a community of faith.
Maccarone remembers being nervous going into his office for her evaluation. As she entered, Msgr. Monforton was sitting behind his desk, and behind them was a picture of Donald Trump from the NBC show “The Apprentice,” where Trump was famous for telling contestants on the show, “You’re fired.”
The lighthearted moment — an obvious joke — was a signal to parish staff the evaluations weren’t meant to be intimidating, but a chance to discuss personal, professional and spiritual growth.
“He encouraged staff to go back to school. I had my undergrad degree in education, and I made the decision to take classes at the seminary,” Maccarone said. “He supported that decision, and when he was appointed to be rector of Sacred Heart (Major Seminary in 2006), he invited me to be on the alumni board.”
Bishop Monforton served at St. Therese of Lisieux for only 14 months before being called to his next assignment at the seminary, where he was reunited with then-Fr. (now Msgr.) Todd Lajiness, who was dean of studies at Sacred Heart.
Bishop Monforton and Msgr. Lajiness each entered the seminary in the fall of 1986, and the two quickly became friends, sharing a common background and similar interests.
“He came from a family of three boys, I came from a family of three boys. He was the oldest, while I was the youngest in the family. We shared some Canadian roots, which is always a great thing to have,” Msgr. Lajiness, administrator of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth, told Detroit Catholic. “We both enjoyed sports very much. He has a real love for the Detroit Red Wings, so I’m sure he’s happy to be close to the Red Wings again.”
The two played on Sacred Heart’s basketball team and traveled together during the summer months. They ended up being ordained a year apart, and their pastoral assignments took them separate ways, but the two reunited at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, where they worked together for six years.
Msgr. Lajiness recalls a particular time when Msgr. Monforton’s leadership came through, during a fire in the seminary's chapel.
“It was 2009 when there was a fire in the chapel, and we had to close the chapel for almost a year for restoration,” said Msgr. Lajiness, who succeeded Bishop Monforton as Sacred Heart's rector in 2012. “I had the opportunity to witness his courage in leading the seminary community through a time when we had to address that."
The fire, which started in the ceiling of the chapel toward the back, caught during all-night adoration, Msgr. Lajiness said — a blessing since it meant the blaze was caught early.
“We had guys scheduled to be there all night, and they noticed things falling from the ceiling and the fire starting. They notified us very quickly and we were able to get to it a lot faster than had the chapel been empty," Msgr. Lajiness said.
Bishop Monforton kept the community informed on updates about the status of the chapel, how severe the damage was and Sacred Heart’s plans moving forward with liturgies and restoration efforts.
Bishop Monforton stayed at the seminary until 2012, when he was named pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Rochester, where he served for only two months before being named bishop of Steubenville, Ohio, continuing a long line of bishops with a connection to Sacred Heart Major Seminary.
“It’s always the movement of the Holy Spirit, whatever assignment you are in,” Msgr. Lajiness said. "Whether it’s at Sacred Heart or a parish, you go where the Holy Spirit is calling you. The seminary is a wonderful institution for priests, for lay leaders, for deacons. But it’s the Holy Spirit that identifies these bishops, which is exciting to see.”
Bishop Monforton, 60, will be the moderator of the archdiocese’s South Region, which includes portions of Wayne County west and south of the city of Detroit and Monroe County, meaning he’ll be working with Msgr. Lajiness at Our Lady of Good Counsel.
“The people of the archdiocese are going to get a bishop who is very attentive to what is going on in the various parishes,” Msgr. Lajiness said. “One of the things he made a point to do in Steubenville was to visit every parish in his diocese upon his arrival, and I’m sure he’ll do the same out here.”
Maccarone and her husband, who used to host Bishop Monforton when he visited the Archdiocese of Detroit during his time as bishop of Steubenville, are glad they will have more opportunities to visit their friend.
“I always felt there were things we had in common and could talk about,” Maccarone said. “It can be hard for priests, and in particular bishops, to develop friendships and have that relationship with anyone; sometimes priest friends see them in a different light once they become bishops. So it’s good to be themselves once in a while and not just the bishop.”
The Dekoskis add it is a special blessing for the Archdiocese of Detroit that Bishop Monforton is returning home, as the archdiocese is gaining a pastor who knows what it means to lead by collaboration and example.
“He exemplifies the three offices of the bishop: to teach, govern, and sanctify,” Carrie Dekoski said. “What you see is what you get with Bishop Monforton. He will take into consideration the experience of the laity, the experience of his priests and be decisive in taking that information to prayer and letting everyone know what’s happening. I know he’s ready to get to work in Detroit.”