A few months ago, on an overcast January day, one of the few truly frigid winter days this year, Deacon Dennis Nash found himself bundled against the cold in the cab of a white pickup truck on acreage belonging to the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange, Ky.
He was on his way with a funeral director and a prison guard to bury a man in his late 60s who desired a Catholic burial.
In life, this man formed a prayer group in prison so he and other inmates could share in morning and evening prayer. He was a Third Order Dominican, attended Mass at the prison when he was well enough and, at other times, Deacon Nash and other ministers took Communion to him in nursing care.
Deacon Nash noted that the man had committed crimes; he was justly imprisoned. But, “You learn in prison ministry not to let the sin blind you to the sinner.”
On the day of the funeral, the body lay in a plywood vault in the back of the pickup. Four inmates rode alongside the truck on a four-wheeler. When this group arrived at the prison cemetery — located on a hilltop known by prisoners as “Chicken Hill” — a backhoe operator was at the burial site waiting, having already dug a grave in the freezing ground.
“It’s actually a pretty place,” noted Deacon Nash afterward. “But the fear a lot of the guys in prison have is that they’ll die there and be buried on Chicken Hill.”
Chicken Hill is reserved for prisoners who either have no family or who are estranged from their family, he said. And that was the case for this prisoner.
Deacon Nash, who directs the Diaconate Office for the Archdiocese of Louisville, had hoped to give this prisoner the funeral he desired. Because Deacon Nash wasn’t family, he wasn’t able to arrange burial in a Catholic cemetery, though he did try. Ultimately, the deacon was permitted to bless the grave.
“It’s not the way most of us would choose to go,” he said. “I kept telling myself, ‘The church is here; the church is here.’ ”
Before he became a deacon, Deacon Nash said he never imagined his ministry would lead him to such an experience. But “any deacon would probably have a similar story or experience,” he said.
“That’s a side of the diaconate folks don’t see,” he noted. “I couldn’t help but think, ‘Pope Francis would be proud I got my boots muddy today.’ ”
Deacon Nash was ordained a deacon in 2012 and wrapped up a 39-year career in the business sector to take over the Diaconate Office in 2016. He is hopeful that more men and their wives, who are expected to share in the formation process, will join him in diaconal service.
Deacons are most often seen by the laity in their parish roles — giving homilies and baptizing children. But charitable works — such as hospital and prison ministry — are central to their service.
They come with all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. Many, like Deacon Nash, work in the business world. The latest class, ordained in 2016 includes a pilot, former members of the military, educators and a computer programmer.
Regardless of their backgrounds and day jobs, the role of a deacon is to serve the church in charity.
“We’re ordained in the person of Christ the Servant,” said Deacon Nash during an interview with The Record last year. “We’re men who are called to deepen our relationship with Christ through prayer and Scripture. The response to that call is service to the church.”
A new deacon class for 2019 is beginning to form. And two events are planned this weekend at St. James Church in Elizabethtown, Ky., for those interested in learning about the diaconate. For more information, call 636-0296.
The church could use more men like Deacon Nash, willing to give their time and selves to the church in need.