WESTFIELD, NJ — One hot summer July Sunday more than 25 years ago, Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity Deacon Tom Pluta remembers seeing an article requesting a donation for his rare blood type, AB negative. Despite a fear of needles, he knew someone’s life could be at stake, so he went in and donated.
Calls to service like this, as well as the example his mother set, made him realize his passion for helping others and led to his decision to become a deacon. Now celebrating his 25th year of service with the church, he will be honored at The Paul Jackson Fund “Giving Hope” Gala on Saturday, May 20, at the Grand Summit Hotel.
Pluta’s mother was one of 12 children.
“In a family of 12 aunts and uncles, you didn’t have a lot of money, and so they were always helping each other,” he said. “And when I looked at my mother, she would literally give you the shirt off her back. My experience is the people who have the least are among the most generous. I think it’s because they really appreciate and understand what it is just to stay alive and make a living. So she was really my inspiration.”
Pluta was ordained in May, 1992 and a has been a member of Holy Trinity Church for 47 years. He serves as ministry outreach coordinator along with his regular liturgical duties, which include baptism, witnessing marriage and preaching. He has been happily married to his wife, Barbara, for 52 years and is a proud father of three daughters and grandfather of six.
For Pluta, serving the community is of utmost importance.
“If you look at the charism of [the Gospel] it’s really a ministry of service more than anything else,” Pluta said. “So I’ve already picked my Gospel for my funeral mass, Matthew 25, in which he says to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned.”
Pluta graduated from Rutgers University where he studied plant science. He was also in the ROTC program and assigned to Germany for two years. Ultimately, he worked at various levels in environmental protection, including for the international non-profit group World Environment Center. Much of his work was with Eastern Europe on training industries in the communist sector on how to reduce pollution. Today, he is glad the issues are gaining more notoriety.
“I think with the sadness of the great polarity of our political system, one of the positives is that people really are becoming more engaged,” Pluta said. “So now I see more people speaking out more against the administration actions on the environment ... I’ve really seen the devastating effects on people’s health, their well-being, their very lives in the communist world where they had no regard for that.”
The town of Westfield has meant a lot to Pluta after moving here 47 years ago.
“I love Westfield because, one, it has a downtown,” Pluta said. “I’ve lived in places where there is no downtown. That sense of being rooted somewhere I think is important.”
The people who make up the town and local community have been just as important.
“I think whatever your religious beliefs and tenets are, the golden rule still applies and is lived and practiced here: Treat others the way you want to be treated,” Pluta said. “So that, I think, was an attraction that brought me here that I’ve seen lived out over the years.”
The town has presented him challenges, as well.
“On the other side I think it’s a tough town to live in,” he said. “Westfield’s always had a reputation for scholastic excellence and sports excellence and I think that, sadly, spirituality is in third place … Forty-seven years ago I never saw kids showing up for mass in their soccer outfits. Today it’s a common thing because they come to church and they’re off to some competition ... So I think sometimes we get seduced by the attractiveness of other things we think will make our lives successful.”
One of Pluta’s favorite service projects is the Westfield Food Pantry at Holy Trinity.
“It’s a great town-wide effort and we serve people in need who are hungry, and we serve the entire county,” Pluta said.
The role of deacon has been a rewarding one for him.
“I’ve witnessed the marriages of my daughters, I baptized my grandchildren, I’ve witnessed the marriages of many of our friends’ children, baptized their children, so that’s kind of the fun part,” Pluta said.
But his contributions go much deeper. Pluta said that some of his most meaningful work with Holy Trinity has been serving many people who come to the door with no food, no clothes or are simply in desperate need of some sort of help.
“Many think homeless people are just derelicts or addicts or whatever, but we don’t really appreciate how many people live on the edge who are hardworking with two, three jobs and still finding it difficult to make a living and feed a family,” Pluta said. “All they have to do is get sick or their car breaks down or they have some issue where they just don’t have enough money. They want to succeed, they just don’t have the talent, the skills, the resources to get out … so to be able to help somebody really move up on that scale to become self-sufficient is probably the most rewarding.”
Mary Jackson, president of The Paul Jackson Fund, which helps people in desperate need due to injury or illness, said the organization is “so pleased to honor Deacon Tom. He has dedicated his life to serving God and being of assistance to his parishioners and to the community. Tom guided my brother Paul when he was a young boy and has been supportive of The Paul Jackson Fund and a friend of the family for many years. We are delighted to be able to honor him at the upcoming gala."
Eric Storms is a student at Westfield High School participating in a journalism program with TAPinto Westfield.