By Darlene Donloe
BALDWIN HILLS — His advanced age doesn’t appear to be slowing him down.
He still does the Stations of the Cross, leads rosary sessions on Fridays, and started the church’s bereavement program and daily Christian Service/luncheon service where he makes sandwiches for the homeless five days a week.
And, until the pandemic, he was reading the gospel at mass on Saturday nights and assisting with mass every Sunday.
Those duties would be a lot even for a younger man, but, at 99, Deacon Emile Adams Jr. of St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Baldwin Hills, is completing those tasks as, purportedly, the oldest active deacon in the country.
Described as a gentle man with a kind heart by those who know him well, this nonagenarian said he was “surprised” to learn of his noteworthy status.
“I feel good about that,” said Adams, who has attended St. Bernadette since 1972 and began his ministry as a deacon in 1979. “I feel good that I can still do some things. I can minister to people and help them. I also help them plan their funerals.
“Of course, that’s not manual work. I don’t do manual work anymore. My mind said I can still do it, but the body says I can’t. I’m content to do what I can.”
Adams, who believes service to others is what’s important, was recommended for a deacon diaconate position by a pastor more than 40 years ago.
“He told me, I was the first one to come to his mind when there was an opening,” said Adams, who was an altar boy at 12. “I said I would think about it. I talked to the family and they said go for it. If I can help someone, I’ve done a good deed.”
Church has always been a big part of Adams’ life.
“I love the way the church makes me feel,” said Deacon Adams. “It makes me feel good about things. I’m helping people to change their way of life. I feel necessary. I love helping someone to get over their troubles.
“People say I’m an inspiration to them. I didn’t know that. People ask me to pray over them. After I’ve prayed, they say they’ve been feeling good ever since. That’s being of service.”
Deacon Jim Carper, the parish life director at St. Bernadette, has known Adams for 12 years and marvels at his dedication to the church.
“Deacon Emile is one of those kind gentlemen that makes the church what it should be,” said Carper, a married father of one. “He has this saying, ‘If somebody asks me to do something, it must need to be done.’ That’s a sign of a quality person.”
Patricia Abatte, 82, and her husband, Eugene, have been members of St. Bernadette for 54 years. The couple began working with Adams and his late wife, Anona, when they launched the bereavement ministry.
“Deacon Emile is one of the nicest people,” said Patricia Abatte, who grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana. “He’s also one of the most learned people I know. Through working with him, I learned so much.
“It’s hard for me to put it in words,” she added. “He’s so patient and deliberate. I learned patience from him. He knows what he is talking about and moves in that direction. The way he works with families when they’re grieving. He’s a wonderful, all- around man. He can joke and tell you a funny story. But, he can also be very serious. He’s saintly in some ways.”
“There is an aura around him,” said Carper, 66, a Pittsburgh native who has been at St. Bernadette for five years. “He’s one of those remarkable people that mixes gentle and good nature with a firmness that is not off-putting.”
Adams grew up in New Orleans as an only child and moved to Los Angeles in 1945. He joined the Navy and was stationed in Vallejo, California before being shipped out to the Marshall Islands. When he got out of the Navy, he decided to stay in California. He went to work at Decca Records, where he pressed records.
After leaving Decca Records, he went to work for the Department of Water and Power where he worked for 32 years before retiring in 1986.
He and his wife, Anona, to whom he was married for 58 years before she died 20 years ago, had five children, four daughters, and one son. He has 16 grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren and three great, great-grandchildren.
Lillian Rouzan, 72, is his middle child.
She gushes when she talks about her father. She can’t say enough about the man who raised her.
“He’s a very gentle man,” Rouzan said. “He’s a considerate and a loving man. He’s not selfish. He puts other people first. I have never heard him raise his voice, even when correcting us as children. He used to say, and point his finger. ‘If you kids don’t stop that, I’m going to knock your heads together.’ Of course, he never did.”
Although her father is 99, Rouzan supports his continued work at the church.
“I am OK with him working,” she said. “I know it’s what keeps him going. It’s a part of him.
“When we were younger, it was part of our life to go to church. Our school was on the church grounds. We were there every day,” she added. “I never felt like he had to make me go. I always wanted to go. I still do.
I love being a Catholic Christian. It has to do with my parents. It was and is a part of my mom and is a part of my father. The example he has given to me is something I walk with and live with.”
Rouzan has only fond memories of her father growing up.
“He worked two jobs, so we didn’t see him as much as we wanted,” said Rouzan, who mischievously and jokingly refers to herself as her father’s “favorite daughter.”
“He was gone in the morning and then when we were little, he wasn’t home yet when we were going to bed,” she said. “On the weekends, he would spend a lot of time with us. Every Friday my mom would let us stay up late. He would come home with pizza. It was such a treat.
“When he stopped working both jobs, he was involved with everything we were doing. I have always loved watching my dad sit and pray. That has always meant very much to me. He was, and is, a loving dad. Whatever he sees that needs to be done, he’ll do it. I tell people, if God told me to pick out a father, I couldn’t have done a better job. God gave me the best.”
Adam’s continued participation at the church demonstrates a special devotion he has to his work.
And during his 99 years of life, Adams has had no regrets.
“None,” he said. “No regrets. I had a good life, a very good life. I always liked Louis Armstrong’s song, ‘What A Wonderful World.’ I think it is. It really is a wonderful world and I have a wonderful life.”
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.