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    Tuesday, August 09, 2022

    Colchester deacon dies suddenly after sermon on death; remembered as mentor, actor

    Michael Puscas in a production of "Fiddler on the Roof." A deacon for the Diocese of Norwich, he died Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, just hours after delivering a sermon at Guardian Angels Parish in Colchester. He was 68 years old. (Courtesy of Dan Hall)

    On a sunny Sunday afternoon Deacon Michael Puscas stood before his congregation and spoke of judgment day — he told parishioners to always be ready to meet the Lord, for they never know when they will live the last hours of their lives.

    Just a few hours after speaking those words at Guardian Angels Parish in Colchester on Nov. 7, the 68-year-old died suddenly, but peacefully, while swimming.

    Puscas was married to the love of his life, Colleen, for 42 years, and they raised four children — Emily, Julia, Blair and Alex — and were proud grandparents to seven grandchildren.

    The second great love of his life, according to an obituary written by his family, was his faith.

    A full life

    Born in Aurora, Ill., in 1953, Puscas earned his master’s degree in instructional technology and his doctorate in education from Northern Illinois University. He began his career as a special agent with the Secret Service under the Ford, Carter and Regan administrations and received a special award “for achieving peaceful resolutions to potentially violent situations,” his family wrote in an obituary this week. He spent the majority of his career in the energy industry, working as a standards compliance manager for ISO New England in Holyoke, Mass., and was recognized as a leader in his field.

    Puscas married Colleen on Sept. 29, 1979, and their love “was truly like a fairy tale,” the family wrote.

    In the early '90s, the couple moved to Colchester and settled into St. Andrew church, where Colleen became director of the choir. Puscas soon heeded the call to join the clergy, becoming a permanent deacon of the Diocese of Norwich assigned to the Guardian Angels Parish in Colchester and Lebanon, and the director deacons for the diocese. Raised in a Roman Catholic church, he was a man of faith his entire life, and was ordained in the Byzantine Catholic Eastern Rite at the Cathedral of St. Patrick in Norwich in June 2005.

    Christopher Hammond, a candidate for the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Norwich and a professor of mathematics at Connecticut College, said the deacon had been mentoring Hammond and his four fellow candidates since 2018.

    Puscas oversaw their education, mentored their summer ministries and guided them “to help us be prepared and to help us discern whether this was what we were called to do,” Hammond said.

    The deacon also shared meaningful stories of his ministries in hospitals and prisons and told of times he counseled people in crisis. “The stories he shared with us were very instructive and moving. He shared valuable experience of what it was like to participate in the parish from the other side of the altar,” Hammond said.

    Hammond said Puscas had a unique talent for being able to connect with everyone. “He used his talents very well, he had this charisma that you’d associate maybe more with actors or public figures. He could be speaking to a large crowd and you’d feel like he was speaking right to you.”

    On and off the stage

    The deacon was active in community theater for decades, singing and dancing on stage in a number of productions and mentoring his fellow thespians.

    “He always made you feel like you were the most important person in the room,” said Erin Sousa-Stanley, artistic director of the East Lyme Regional Theater.

    She first met Puscas in 2006, when she was choreographing "Fiddler on the Roof" in Colchester and Puscas was playing the role of Τevye. She called Puscas “a remarkable man” and said they immediately built a connection. Years later, after starting her own theater organization, she cast him as Τevye in a production of the same show.

    In 2014, Colleen and Michael Puscas asked Sousa-Stanley to direct St. Andrew’s annual Passion Play. She said that although her career has spanned 20 years and dozens of productions, the 100-person play was “one of the most inspiring and rewarding experiences of my life.”

    No matter the role, he always brought passion to his work, she said.

    “He was an incredible talent. He seemed to be the kind of person that everything he does, he’s incredible at. But he always led with his heart, never an ego,” she said. “He had such humility and grace, he’d be the lead in the show but he’d be the first person to go up to one of our volunteers cleaning or taking out the trash and offer to do it. He was just one of the most inspiring human beings I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with.”

    When Puscas was cast with his daughters, Emily and Julia, Sousa-Stanley said he exhibited “incredible strength and compassion as a father.” He even inspired her own children, who also shared the stage with him.

    “I just feel honored that we got to live in his space," she said. "It felt like we were in the presence of a saint, like you were walking alongside someone who you know had a plan of excellence, who was chosen to lead by example.”

    For more than 30 years, Wallis Johnson was a neighbor, parishioner and theatrical colleague to of Puscas.

    As vice president of production at Colchester Community Theater, Johnson worked with Puscas as he stepped into the roles of countless characters, from Capt. Von Trapp in "The Sound of Music" and Lumiere in "Beauty and the Beast" to the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz" to Mr. Banks in "Mary Poppins."

    She remembers watching him in the wings before he stepped on stage: “You could watch his whole face change from being Michael to being the person that he was playing.”

    Johnson said his singing voice, acting and dancing were all impeccable. But off stage, he also made an impact — spending spare moments in rehearsals running lines with new actors in the hallway and always supporting fellow cast members.

    “He was incredibly supportive, kind and professional," she said. "He always tried to put new actors at ease and build their confidence.”

    He also lent his other talents, including his self-taught woodworking skills, to the theater — for example, building elaborate thrones for the king and queen for a production of "Cinderella." He also used this talent as a volunteer for the Haitian Health Foundation, with whom he took three trips to Haiti, helping to build one-room houses and helping the community of Jeremie.

    He also was a dedicated brother with the Francis Cardinal Spellman Knights of Columbus Council 6107 and ACTS Men’s Retreat movement and was a swimmer and runner.

    In the church, Johnson said she had the pleasure to hear many of his sermons. “He knew what real life was like for the people sitting in the pews, so when he would give a sermon, it was something that ordinary folks could relate to, something that could carry us through the week.”

    Last Sunday, she heard the last sermon Puscas would give. She said it was powerful and called on parishioners to live in a way that would prepare them for their death.

    In Puscas' obituary, his family said they found great “comfort and consolation in the words of the Homily that he preached that same morning — on the importance of being ready to meet the Lord when he calls us.”

    Johnson said when they learned of Puscas' death, she and other parishioners gathered at the church for an impromptu prayer service in his honor. “He’s going to be really, really, really missed,” she said. “There’s going to be an empty space left in all of our lives.”

    Funeral services will be held at Guardian Angels Parish at St. Andrew Church, 128 Norwich Ave. in Colchester, with a funeral liturgy at 10:30 a.m. Friday.

    In lieu of flowers, the family is suggesting donations to the Hatian Health Foundation, 97 Sherman St. in Norwich or haitianhealthfoundation.org.

    t.hartz@theday.com

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