Deacon Joseph Milligan, Holy Family Parish deacon and former diocesan director of deacons, dies

North Texas Catholic
(May 31, 2024) Local

Deacon Joseph Milligan (NTC file photo)

FORT WORTH — A holy man. A humble servant. An exceptional listener whose compassion and gentle presence helped heal struggling souls.

That is how friends, family, and the many people he served at Holy Family Parish will remember Deacon Joseph Milligan who passed away May 27 at the age of 85.

On Tuesday, June 4, a Rosary and visitation are planned from 2 to 4 p.m. followed by a vigil service and visitation from 6 to 8 p.m. at Thompson’s Harveson & Cole Funeral Home, 4350 River Oaks Boulevard in Fort Worth. Monsignor Joseph Pemberton will celebrate a Mass of Christian Burial at 11 a.m., Wednesday, June 5 at Holy Family Church, 6150 Pershing Avenue, Fort Worth. Interment is in Oakwood Cemetery.

A member of the first class of permanent deacons in the Diocese of Fort Worth, the longtime Fort Worth resident was ordained on August 19, 1989, with 12 other men.

For a number of years, the late deacon worked as diocesan director of deacons and helped in the formation process for men ordained in 1995 and 2003.

“He was a father figure for me and others,” said Deacon Don Warner, who succeeded Milligan as director of deacons. “Dcn. Joe was committed to his ministry and was a great example of a deacon as a servant of the people.”

Jason Spoolstra was too young to remember his grandfather’s ordination ceremony but receiving his first Communion from him at age seven in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church is a vivid memory.

“That was really special,” said the former diocesan employee who now works for the Diocese of Columbus. “He influenced my life in the Church and was always present and loving.”

The affectionate grandfather he called PapPap never forgot his birthday with good reason.

“He always talked about how the day I was born — September 21, 1985 — was his first day in diaconate formation,” Spoolstra recalled. “I’m very thankful he’s at peace with the Lord now and in heaven with my grandmother.”

Deacon Mike Mocek worked alongside the late deacon at Holy Family Parish and witnessed his involvement with the parish’s small, faith communities as well as marriage ministry. One couple, who married outside the Church, wanted their union validated.

“He not only worked with them, he brought them back into the Church as active members,” the colleague remembered. “If someone needed him, he gave them his undivided attention. He built relationships and held onto them after the crisis was over.”

Dcn. Milligan’s ability to connect with people and make a difference in their lives was never more evident than when he helped a parish family deal with the incarceration and eventual execution of their son. Jeffrey Dillingham was 27 years old when he was executed by lethal injection on November 1, 2000, in Huntsville for the murder-for-hire of a Fort Worth woman seven years earlier.

“He went with me through the whole thing — the trial, sentencing, and execution,” said Ray Dillingham, the inmate’s father. “Deacon Joe would go visit Jeffrey in prison at least once a month. He was always there moving him forward in his faith.”

The deacon prayed with the family in the moments before the execution and was allowed by prison officials to bless the body afterwards.

“Deacon Joe was so instrumental in Jeffrey’s life and in ours,” said Dillingham, an active Holy Family parishioner along with wife, Toni. “He was an amazing, special man.”

The deacon’s relationship with the death row inmate intensified his efforts to ban the death penalty in Texas. As a member of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the advocate joined panel discussions to share his point of view, often ending with the words, “If you have never experienced an execution, I would suggest that you do so and then make a judgment.”

Dcn. Milligan’s outreach was very much one-on-one, observed Dcn. Mocek.

“Anytime anyone had a need or was hurting, Dcn. Joe was always available to them in the [similar way] as Jeffrey Dillingham,” he added. “His compassion was just incredible.”

The late deacon was preceded in death by his beloved wife of 61 years, Betsy (Schweiger) Milligan, his parents, and several brothers-in-law.

He is survived by children, Joseph E. Milligan III (Linda); Louise M. Trotter (Chris), Kristen M. Wood (Randy), Maria M. Spoolstra (Scott); grandchildren, Sean Michael, Luke, Cassidy and Leah Milligan, Colleen (Phillip Dyson), David, Matthew (Lana), and Patrick Trotter; Riley, Spencer (Katy), Connor, and Brady Wood; Jason (Rebecca) and Charles (Samantha) Spoolstra; great grandchildren, Clare, Catherine, Elizabeth, Gregory Joseph, Eleanor, and Margo Spoolstra; Henry and Emma Dyson; sisters and brother and sisters-in-law, Judith Milligan, Mary Louise Valecko, Sarah Milligan, James J. Schweiger (Dorothy), George Ann Paladino, Karin Maniet (Lou), and Cathy Schweiger.

Deacon Joseph Milligan, Holy Family Parish, deacon, Diocese of Fort Worth, trending-english