When Deacon Dustin Hungerford was in elementary school, a class assignment instructed him to draw a picture of himself as an adult.
“I drew myself as a priest,” he said during a recent interview. “It started way back in second grade. That’s when I felt the call. That was the first inkling.”
More than 25 years later, he is preparing for ordination to priesthood. Deacon Hungerford will be ordained by Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre at the Cathedral of the Assumption, 433 S. Fifth St., on May 21 at 11 a.m.
Growing up, he attended Mass with his family in Louisville’s south end at St. Polycarp Church — one of five parishes that merged to form St. Peter the Apostle Church in 2008. He was an altar server and spent so much time at the church, most people assumed he went to school there, he said.
“My family was founding members at St. Polycarp parish,” he said. “I actually didn’t go to school there, but I was there so much that everyone thinks I did.”
His school-level Catholic education began when he attended DeSales High School. He’s a member of the class of 2006.
“I love that place, I really do,” he said of the all-male college preparatory school. “It’s a relatively small place, so you form this kind of brotherhood. You get to know these guys, you grow up with them. I am still best friends with the guys I went to high school with.”
DeSales provided supportive teachers who encouraged his vocation as well as the opportunity to “form a fraternity of relationships that sustained” him, he said.
Deacon Hungerford initially discerned religious life and spent a year and a half as a novice of the Carmelites, who founded the school. Ultimately, he decided it wasn’t for him.
“I missed this place (the Archdiocese of Louisville),” he said. “When you are religious you can end up anywhere. You’re in Kansas, Africa, France.”
Diocesan priesthood focuses on “the life of the place,” he said. “For me, there was something very, very special about this place and these people, I couldn’t shake it.”
After leaving the Carmelites, Deacon Hungerford became a teacher, teaching theology classes to students at Mercy Academy, Sacred Heart Academy and Holy Cross High School. He said he loved teaching, but wanted to be able to celebrate the sacraments with his students in a way that he couldn’t while being a teacher.
In 2018, after talking it over with the archdiocesan Vocation Office and at the encouragement of Father Philip Erickson, Deacon Hungerford entered seminary to become a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville.
“I decided I gotta give this a go,” he said. “The call, that’s on the Lord. It bugs you until you give in.”
Now that he’s given in, it’s been a “big blessing,” he said.
During seminary, Deacon Hungerford completed a hospital chaplain rotation as part of his Clinical Pastoral Education program. He said he loved the 10 weeks he spent serving at Baptist Health Louisville, which happened to be the first summer of COVID-19 in 2020.
“I loved giving strength to those people,” he said. “They need to know they’re not alone. People don’t have to go through those things by themselves.”
Occasionally he was called for a patient on the maternity ward, but most of the people he served in the hospital were nearing the end of life.
Deacon Hungerford’s favorite Scripture verse played a role in that ministry: Philippians 1:21 — “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
He said people, in general, tend to fear death too much.
“Part of being in Christ is understanding death has been transformed for us,” he said. “We need to see death as a gift. … Live toward that moment of redemption instead of running from it.
“Whenever God is calling us home, we can wrap up all we are, all we have been, all we have done and hand it over to God,” he added.
Deacon Hungerford credits his maternal grandmother for giving him his faith, but said his big family has played a role as well.
“My family takes being family very seriously,” he said. “What I want to do and decide to do always gets supported. I always feel defended in my family.
They know that this is what I want to do, feel called to do and they back that 100 percent.”
He’s the oldest of nine children, and said “when it comes to discerning a vocation like this, not worrying is so helpful. It makes it so much easier to say, ‘Okay Lord, I know things are in order, what do you need?’ ”
Deacon Hungerford will celebrate his first Mass of Thanksgiving at 3 p.m. May 22 at St. Peter the Apostle Church, 5431 Johnsontown Road.
The ordination will be livestreamed on the YouTube channel of the Cathedral of the Assumption.