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Born to be a Deacon

A tireless worker who embodies what it means to be a deacon of the Catholic Church. That is how those who know him describe Deacon Dennis Popadak.

“He was born to be a deacon.  I say that over and over again, but it’s absolutely true,” says Beverly Popadak, his wife.

“He is a great example of a deacon who is at the service of the Church by always being willing to do a little more to respond to the needs of God’s people,” says Father Daniel Greenleaf, pastor of the Parish of the Holy Eucharist in Falmouth, where Deacon Dennis serves.

“His ministry is one that embodies the meaning of charity and self-giving as he strives to make Christ present to all those he encounters through an authentic witness of love,” says Deacon Peter Bernier, director of the diocese’s Office of the Diaconate.

For his dedication and service, Deacon Dennis was honored as the 2017 Deacon of the Year.  It is an award that he accepted with his typical humility

“It’s unbelievable that you get rewarded for doing something that you think you’re supposed to be doing,” he says. “I feel honored to be in line with the others who have received it previously. I’ve been blessed with so many things by God, and it’s been a privilege and grace to be able to share those with the diaconate community and in the parish, as well as at the diocesan level.”

Ordained on June 14, 1998, Deacon Dennis has been sharing his gifts as a permanent deacon for nearly 20 years, but his commitment to helping others goes back far longer.

“He’s always put other people before him, always, even as a kid. That is his nature,” says Beverly.

Deacon Dennis attributes that to his parents, who were his first role models, and to his Slovak heritage.

“It was a people who always loved to celebrate. It was a people who always went out of their way to help other people,” he says.  “They were working class people. They all worked in the mill, the Worumbo Mill, hard hours, working to sacrifice for the family.”

Deacon Dennis was born in Brunswick but raised in Lisbon Falls, where his family attended Ss. Cyril & Methodius Church, which later merged with two other churches to form Holy Trinity Parish.

Faith was ever present when he was growing up, whether it was praying the rosary on Friday evenings, saying grace before meals, or being an altar server, something he continued to do right through college.  He recalls being the first at his church to share the Mass readings in English, following the Vatican II change from Latin to the vernacular. He was age 14 at the time.

His faith and commitment were such that parishioners saw in him the possibility of a priestly vocation. That, however, was not his call.  He met Beverly shortly after she moved to town, and when he was 20 and she just 18, they married.

Beverly recalls her initial attraction to him. “He was the only guy I had seen in Lisbon Falls with long hair. That was the 60s.  He probably just had bangs, but in those days, that was long hair,” she says, laughing.

“It just worked,” says Deacon Dennis. “We just clicked right from the beginning.”

The couple has now been married 48 years and have two daughters and four grandsons.

A speech major at the University of Maine at Orono, he intended to become a speech therapist, but a practicum his senior year sent him in another direction.

“It was the idea that you had to rise above the situation, and I was too involved, too empathetic,” he says.

Instead, he began a career in retail, which took him and Beverly to Waterville.  There, he became more engaged in the church, serving in faith formation and youth ministry at St. Theresa in Oakland.  Feeling called to learn and do more, he looked into studying theology.

“He was searching, trying to find his way,” says Beverly. “He was meant to be a deacon, but there wasn’t anything labeled as that.”

But that was about to change.

“Father (Germaine) Bureau said that there is something going on in the diocese. They’re talking about having deacons, and I’m putting your name in,” Deacon Dennis recalls his pastor telling him.

Even today, not all are familiar with permanent deacons, but back then, the ministry was still taking shape.

“Even the diocese was exploring new territory of how to set things up and how to do things,” Deacon Dennis explains.

That meant changes and challenges.

“There was the whole challenge in terms of holding a job and trying to do the master’s program in between and still raise a family, but it all happened.  I think that was part of realizing that this was meant to be because, even though we struggled at times, even though we had hard times, even though sometimes the computer didn’t work to do your paper, it all came to fruition.”

Beverly remembers the emotional ordination day.

“They were all crying. You could see it in their bodies,” she says.

Deacon Dennis says while it was anticipated that all nine new permanent deacons would have parish careers, that didn’t turn out to be the case. He, however, was assigned to Holy Martyrs of North America Parish in Falmouth. It unexpectedly meant moving from their Oakland home and Beverly giving up a beloved job.

“It was a big change, and yet, that is the gift that she has given,” he says.

“It’s a hard thing to change your life like that, but it’s o.k., because this is where we’re supposed to be going,” says Beverly.

“When these things happen, it’s the idea of a window being closed, but a door is opened. It’s always something better. It’s always the way it has been,” he says.

His position as parish catechetical leader at Holy Martyrs was new territory in more ways than one.

“It was a 40-hour paid position, 80 hours expected,” he says. “I was expected to go to all five Masses that were at Holy Martyrs at that time, to be a deacon and to be a presence there, and to preach on a regular basis.  Part of it was to educate the people about what the diaconate was and what this new piece of the puzzle was.”

Although marriage and family remain a deacon’s first vocation, it took a while to find the right balance.

“We’ve had bumps. It’s not always been easy,” says Beverly.

For instance, the couple has moved four times as his position has changed, although he has remained within what is now the Parish of the Holy Eucharist.  In addition to Holy Martyrs, he has served at Sacred Heart Church in Yarmouth, St. Jude Church in Freeport, and now at St. Gregory Church in Gray.

“Now, the position is more of a parish leader, so I’m dedicated to trying to be the bridge or fill the gap between the pastor and the laity here at St. Gregory, so they have a sense of connection, because with the priest rotating and stuff, there isn’t that continuity on a regular basis,” Deacon Dennis explains.

He emphasizes that the diaconate isn’t in competition with the priesthood.

“If anything, it’s to support the priesthood,” he says. “It’s two different charisms. They have their gifts and we have our gifts.”

His ministry includes performing baptisms, blessing marriages, presiding at funerals outside of Mass or at graveside services, and visiting the sick.

“It’s just being with people at moments in their lives, being able to celebrate those with them and also being there when things are rough and tough, realizing that you can be that person who can help them through it,” he says.

The rewards, he says, are intangible, yet incredible.

“When you’re doing something that you realize God wants you to do, the rewards are just phenomenal. The outpouring of grace is more than you can even explain.  I’ve been blessed with our marriage, our children, with the community that we are with.”

That includes the deacon community.

“The first time we got together with deacon couples, it was like, wow, look at how everybody just likes everybody. It was such a nice feeling. And I realized it’s because we all let God into our marriages,” says Beverly.

Deacon Popadak says being a deacon becomes who you are.

“I just do the things that I think God has called me to do,” he says.  “God doesn’t call us to be rich and famous.  He calls us to be honest and sincere, and I think that’s what I’ve gotten from the diaconate.”