By Mark Haney
The Catholic Times
DEWITT — The founder of youth ministry for the Diocese of Lansing, Jack Armstrong, died Tuesday, Jan. 25, after a bout with leukemia.
He was 65.
Born July 19, 1945 in Port Huron to Robert and Theresa (Recker) Armstrong, he graduated from Sacred Heart High School and Seminary in Detroit (where he later taught) and earned a master’s degree in communications from Michigan State University. He developed and taught a course in media ethics for Lansing Community College. But he was known as the “grandfather of youth ministry” in the Catholic Church in Michigan. He spent 41 years working for the Church primarily as a youth leader, 32 years of which were devoted to the Catholic Community of St. Jude in DeWitt.
“The Diocese of Lansing gives thanks to God for the long, loving and generous ministry of Jack Armstrong,” said Bishop Earl Boyea. “His service to our young people is legendary and his dedication to St. Jude Parish was Christ-like in the outpouring of himself. We pray for him and his family.”
His passing was felt beyond the borders of the diocese.
“When word came about Jack’s passing into eternal life, it wasn’t just myself who was affected,” said Ron Landfair, director of Black Catholic ministry for the diocese. “As a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry, I was at our annual meeting in Albuquerque, N.M. and made our attendees from all over the country, aware that Jack had passed on. Dozens of people came up to me to offer condolences or mention his influence and friendship. Jack’s influence was clearly felt beyond his parish and the Diocese of Lansing. His ministry spanned both eras, decades and across the country. But Jack was more than just the first diocesan director of youth ministry. He was more than the coordinator of youth Ministry at St. Jude parish. Whether at the East Lansing Art Fair or at the many programs I did at his parish, I will remember our conversations about everything and nothing, his gigantic bear hugs, his ever-present white wallaby hat, his twinkling eyes and impish grin and the faith, hope and love of the Church and young people that he carried in his heart. I will remember him as he was my friend.”
Some of those people Landfair talked to offered their own testimonials about Armstrong.
“I have known Jack for many years,” said Robert McCarty, executive director of the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry in Washington D.C. “Quite simply, Jack loved the young Church and had a passion for youth ministry. He was both role model and mentor for many youth ministers around the country. He will be missed.”
“Jack was a giant in two fields,” said Ted Miles, religious education relationship manager of Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore, “both youth ministry as well as scouting.”
Armstrong began a life of community activism by working as a Freedom Rider to register voters in Mississippi in the 1960s. He later helped Habitat for Humanity, Loaves and Fishes, Ele’s Place and Mother Teresa House.
In 1978 he organized a diocesan Young People’s Congress at Fr. Luke M. Powers High School in Flint that led to the development of the diocesan Youth Ministry Office. He was chosen to be the first director of that office and was among the first people in the nation to hold such a position. As director he started many of its ongoing programs such as the annual Jamboree. He also was among those who helped form the Professional Pastoral Ministers Association of the diocese, which began in September 1986. His mentor work with confirmation has been used by other parishes. He also has served as a trainer, speaker, and leader in venues such as Nuts & Bolts, the State Young Adult Conference, Common Conference and basic and intermediate youth ministry training.
Armstrong did not do this alone. His wife, Paty, was his supporter and help until her death in 2006. In recognition of Jack’s faithfulness to youth ministry and to the co-ministry and support of Paty, the diocesan “Friend of Youth Award” was renamed the “Jack and Paty Armstrong Friend of Youth Award” in 2009. The award is given at the annual Jamboree in November.
The couple also had been the guardian of their two granddaughters since their son, Paul, and daughter-in-law died. Jack maintained that role after Paty died.
“While suffering the loss of those he has loved he has continued to love those he still has had with him,” said Pat Rinker, director of youth ministry for the diocese. “He is love in the midst of loss, faith in the midst of trial, and hope when others would doubt. He has been a disciple on earth and now is an intercessor in heaven. Jack has been what he has preached with such integrity that all of us that have known him have been inspired to new levels of discipleship. The Diocese of Lansing has lost an incredible minister but still has in him a great saint.”
Armstrong, a Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus and past Grand Knight, is survived by his second wife, Sharon Marshall Hoerr; his daughter, Joana; son, Ben, and grandchildren Brontae, Coreena, Braylon and Callum.
He’s also survived by a lot of those young people whose lives he touched.
“I have been working alongside of Jack for nearly half my life, as both a teen in Lansing Diocese youth ministry programs and then as a coordinator of youth ministry,” said Emily Crockett, youth minister at Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. Casimir parishes in Lansing. “His dedication to youth and especially to the mission of Christ inspired me throughout my career. And now I have watched him inspire the teens I work with. He is an amazing servant of Christ to have touched the lives of so many generations of youth. His talent, compassion and presence of Christ will truly be missed by so many of us, but so glorious that he is now at home with Jesus. The lasting effects of his ministry will be felt in many generations to come.”
“I have only been involved in ministry for 10 years,” said Elian Baur, youth minister at St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Flushing. “I do know Jack was well respected by his peers. As a newbie, I attended a session on social justice that Jack presented at a conference. I remember being so in awe of his gentle nature yet deep passion for social justice. We also rode the bus with our respective groups to NCYC in Columbus. He had such wisdom about ministry and how to reach young people.”
“Jack’s passing is a great loss to the young church in Lansing,” said Ron Kenney, youth minister at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Fenton. “To many in youth ministry, Jack was the ‘rock’ that we all stood upon. We considered him not just a colleague, friend and mentor, but a well of wisdom that paved the way for all of us in ministry. He was a true friend of youth, but most of all he was a voice for bringing young people into the church. He lived his call to serve Christ everyday and every moment of his life. His passion for Jesus was evident from the first moment you met him. He was and will always be one of my heroes in ministry.”
“I have known Jack since 1987, said Maureen Kelsey, director youth ministry at St. John Vianney Parish in Flint. “He was a part of my very first DYLC experience. Jack Armstrong was one of the best. He was huge in stature, but so gentle in spirit. He always had a smile on his face and a song in his heart. He was a pioneer of youth ministry for this diocese. His passion to bring Jesus to the youth showed in everything he did. He will truly be missed.”
“He was a gentle man,” said Cindee McColley, director of religious education at St. Pius X Parish in Flint. “He loved his family and cared deeply for the youth. He was organized and soft spoken. Jack was always smiling and the youth enjoyed being in his presence. I am very sad to hear of his passing. We will all miss his at the rallies.”
“For his colleagues in ministry, Jack was always a caring presence, friend, and often a mentor,” said Connie McClanahan, director of religious education and youth ministry at St. Michael Parish in Flint. “The Diocese of Lansing has lost another treasure in the person of Jack Armstrong; our loss is heaven’s gain.”
Armstrong’s funeral Mass was Saturday, Jan. 29, at the Catholic Community of St. Jude. Memorials may be made to the college trust fund for Coreena and Brontae, in care of Sharon Hoerr, mailed to Gorsline Runciman Funeral Home, P.O. Box 507 DeWitt, MI 48820.
His friends and co-workers, meanwhile, are dealing with the loss.
“Jack was always a friendly and welcoming presence for the folks he served and especially for other lay ecclesial ministers,” said Pete Ries, former diocesan director of youth ministry who now works at the combined St. John Student and St. Thomas Aquinas parishes in East Lansing. “He was innovative, always exploring new ways to be effective in the Church’s ministry.
“He desired to be inclusive — trying to gather as many as possible within the loving embrace of Jesus. Because of his age and experience, Jack had a lot of institutional memory. His life bridged the pre-Vatican Church, Vatican II, the post-Vatican period, and all the developments of the past couple decades. I think you could say he saw it all.
“I will miss our informal encounters when I might kid him about his golf game, or we would share news about fishing, or just talk about mutual friends in church ministry.”