By JORDAN MCMORROUGH
CHARLESTON — Deacon Al Payne, the new assistant to the vicar general for the Diocese of Charleston, is embarking on a different path. However, that’s nothing unusual for the New Jersey native, who in three decades has transitioned from a career as a Marine to one in ministry.
Born in Elizabeth, N.J., he attended Catholic grammar and high schools, first at St. Bartholomew the Apostle in Scotch Plains, then to Seton Hall Prep School in South Orange.
After two years of self-described drifting in college, Payne enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in April 1966 at the height of the Vietnam War. He joked that he spent the toughest three months of his life in South Carolina, at Parris Island, from June to August of that year.
Payne subsequently served in Vietnam from April 1967 to May 1968. He was wounded in action in September 1967 and received a Purple Heart.
It was during his time in the Marines that Payne decided to pursue a career in law enforcement rather than one in the military. Upon his return to the United States, he entered Trenton State College and later earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. That began a 12-and-a-half year stint as a police officer.
He was first hired as a patrolman in his hometown of Elizabeth, and he worked a tough waterfront beat. The precinct contained the very large Singer sewing machine complex. Traditionally, the company had been the main employer in the city, and many of Payne’s family members had worked in the factory. However, in the early ’70s, the facility was in serious decline.
After marrying his wife, Carol, the couple decided to move away from the gritty inner city.
Payne took a job with the Somerset County Prosecuter’s Office in 1974, advancing his way to a detective sergeant with the narcotics unit, where he worked on wiretap and surveillance operations.
“It brought new light to the meaning of excitement,” he said, while admitting that the undercover work was sometimes frightening as well.
When the Paynes moved to suburban Hillsborough, N.J., in 1978, the population there was 7,000. It now stands at 40,000, and the deacon compared the city’s growth to Mount Pleasant, where he and his wife are currently residing.
The Hillsborough area is dotted with pharmaceutical, financial, and telecommunication corporate headquarters. In addition, the county was and is home to some of America’s most affluent, such as Jacqueline Kennedy and Steven Forbes.
With the influx of new industry, Payne left law enforcement in 1981 and took a position in corporate security with Ortho Pharmaceutical. He worked there until 1987, when he took a job with Colgate-Palmolive. Payne stayed there briefly until 1989, when he went to work for the Carter-Wallace, Inc..
The assistant to the vicar general was employed by the company until Oct. 31 of this year. Earlier in the fall, the company was sold and divided in half. Senior employees were offered severance packages, and Payne took advantage of the opportunity to pursue yet another path, one which he had been working toward for years.
In 1993-94, Payne said he felt a calling to deepen his service to the church. About that time, a speaker came to his home parish to talk about the diaconate program in the Metuchen Diocese.
At his parish, he and his wife were involved in the Pre-Cana program, baptismal preparation, as eucharistic ministers, and as members of the Holy Name and Altar Rosary societies, respectively.
Payne had attended minor seminary for two years in high school, but realized at a young age he wasn’t called to the priesthood. This new program piqued his curiosity, however.
He applied for and was accepted into the five-year program, and Payne again went back to school, at the College of Saint Elizabeth for diaconal ministry, attending classes on Monday and Thursday nights with his wife by his side. “I couldn’t have done it without her,” he said.
At the time he entered diaconate formation, both of Payne’s sons were in the Marine Corps, so he said completing the program was much easier than some of his classmates. He talked admiringly of colleagues having to juggle little league games and school activities with young children around their coursework.
Payne speaks proudly of his sons, who are following in their father’s footsteps. Both are Marine Corps veterans, college graduates, and police officers with local departments in New Jersey. One was even cited with an award for bravery following his lifesaving role in a townhouse fire in the Garden State last year.
He described how the Metuchen Diocese wanted the wives to be involved in the diaconate formation program by offering the spouses opportunities to commiserate at events such as retreats, days of reflection, and Communion breakfasts.
“I need to say that this is our ministry,” Payne emphasized. “My wife is so very, very important. In the diaconate you need the support of your wife.”
He subsequently received his master’s degree in pastoral studies from Caldwell College in Caldwell, N.J., and was ordained to the diaconate on June 13, 1998, the feast of St. Anthony.
Payne was assigned to Mary, Mother of God in Hillsborough, his home church, the only deacon at a parish of 3,000 families.
He said he worked as a team in diaconal ministry with his wife in baptismal and marriage preparation and conducted more than 300 baptisms in a three-year stretch.
At age 55, the deacon planned to leave the corporate world and enter into full-time ministry.
So, two years ago, one of his priest friends, Franciscan Father Anthony Ciona, had him write to Msgr. Joseph Roth, head of the diaconate program for the Diocese of Charleston and then pastor of St. Andrew Church in Myrtle Beach.
Payne was interested in perhaps pursing a position as a parish life facilitator at a church in a rural area. He and Msgr. Roth corresponded a couple of times and talked on the phone, but nothing came about at that time.
Then this past August, following the departure of Sister Susan Schorsten, who was elected to a position within her religious congregation, Payne was contacted by the diocesan human resources director about the vacant position of assistant to the vicar general. Following a series of telephone interviews and a visit to the Holy City, Payne accepted the job and began this latest chapter in his life on Nov. 5, just after his 55th birthday.
He said he has spent his first month getting up to speed on the screening program for diocesan employees, which Sister Schorsten implemented, as well as getting to know his supervisor, Msgr. James A. Carter, vicar general.
“It’s going to be a great challenge,” Payne said of his new position. “I look forward to it.”