A married man and a deacon of the Church

Andrew Hegarty talks of life as a permanent deacon

The Rev. Mr Andrew Hegarty, permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Armagh will never forget the weekend that changed his life and that of Mary his wife of almost 45 years forever.

It was March 2008 and he and Mary were having a rare weekend break in Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo.

“We were leaving Sunday morning Mass and I picked up a leaflet. It gave details about the Permanent Diaconate and I was magnetised by it.”

Within days Deacon Andrew (Andy to all who know him) a father of five adult children had e-mailed Fr John Gates, the director of formation for the Permanent Diaconate in the archdiocese and had received an information pack in the post.

He had initiated a process, he believes guided by the Holy Spirit that led to him being ordained a Permanent Deacon for Dungannon Parish in Co. Tyrone by Cardinal Sean Brady in St Patrick’s Cathedral Armagh last September.

In addition to his part-time duties as a deacon he  works four days a week as a chaplain at Maghaberry Prison near Lisburn employed by the diocese of Down and Connor.

Ordained alongside him were four other men also with wives and children, Martin Barlow, David Durrigan, Benignus Ndubuisi and John Taafe.

They were the first ever to be ordained permanent deacons in the cathedral. 

Ancient ministry

In his homily Coadjutor Archbishop Eamon Martin recalled that it is nearly 50 years since Vatican II “restored the ancient ministry of permanent diaconate in the universal Church”.

However, the Irish Episcopal Conference has been slow to respond – a cousin of Andy’s was ordained a permanent deacon in New York as early as 1972. Dublin blazed the trail by ordaining eight in 2012 and two have been ordained in Dromore.

According to the website of the Irish Episcopal Conference it appears that only 10 of Ireland’s 26 dioceses have launched the Permanent Diaconate with only Armagh and Dromore in the North to have done so. The 10 provide more information at www.catholicbishops.ie/diaconate.

With the benefit of hindsight it is a vocation  that Deacon Andy (65) and Mary, the parents of five grown up children, Paul, Brenda, Niall, Maria and Andrew (junior) and seven grandchildren  have been preparing for over almost 40 years.

The intensity and breadth of their service to their parish in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone and indeed the archdiocese as a whole is striking.  

Without Mary’s consent Andy would not have been invited to commence the three-year formation and theological training required.

The Permanent Diaconate National Directory and Norms for Ireland states: “When an applicant for the diaconate is a married man, he must have the consent of his wife….”

The Norms go on to state that from the earliest stage the wives of aspirants should be involved in the formation process and show a willingness to support their husbands.

In Andy’s case that support has been present throughout and freely given though ordination has brought challenges to their lives.

Called to serve

Andy, now a member of the clergy himself, is one of a family of eight from near Desertmartin, Co. Derry with strong clerical and religious connections.

 His father had two brothers and an uncle priests and a sister a nun in America.

Andy’s first job was as  an apprentice plasterer before working for twenty two years as a joiner with a local building contractor from 1969-92.  

He then became a contracts manager for a construction company until the Diaconate beckoned in 2008.

Archbishop Martin in his homily stated that that deacons “…are essentially called to serve”.

Andy and Mary are no strangers to service.

They reared five children of their own and fostered a girl for 14 years who joined their family at the age of 3.

They worked as volunteers for Marriage Encounter for 10 years from 1978 to 1988 and for Engaged Encounter from 1988-1996.

Marriage Encounter appears to have had a profound influence on them, enriching their own marriage and empowering them to help and renew the marriages of others.

Mary: “It was a great gift. We had no formal preparation for our own marriage. You learn to communicate feelings and you become a living sacrament focussing on the Holy Spirit’s role in your marriage.”

Andy adds: “Before Marriage Encounter, sexuality was taboo but it brought out the holiness in sexuality, the fullest expression of your love and feelings for your spouse. “

Profound effect

Mary and Andy also recall they worked with the Family of God Community for about nine years travelling to numerous meetings in Dundalk.

But Eucharistic adoration played the most significant part in Andy’s journey.

He led his parish’s  adoration group from 1994 until less than two years ago organising adoration from 8 am to 10 pm for 6 days a week for much of the time.  

In 2008 he and Mary went to a meeting in Armagh convened by Cardinal Brady to prepare for the Eucharistic Congress and though Mary had warned him “not get involved as we were so stretched already” she ended up backing his appointment as chair of the diocesan adoration committee.

This meant “speaking in pulpits around the diocese promoting adoration and I had to think very deeply about what I believed about the Real Presence and what I would say”.

This had a profound effect “When I got a glimpse, just a glimpse of the Real Presence of Christ it changed my life.”

He was also safeguarding officer for his parish and helping out at diocesan level also. “Nobody has done more on safeguarding than Cardinal Brady himself and he went through the mill.”

Andy thinks saying yes to the Diaconate was “a natural progression” although he never considered it until that fateful visit to Mullaghmore.

His work as a deacon is varied ranging from the Galilee visitation project in Dungannon, to visiting the sick, presiding at Benediction, baptisms, to perhaps the most onerous duty of all, delivering homilies at Sunday Mass.

“It is a long step from the pew to the pulpit and nothing prepares you for it.”


He begins his preparation for the Sunday homily a full week before and says he finds inspiration in his dreams.

In July he is scheduled to officiate at his first marriage, that of his son Andrew in Gran Canaria.

The work at Maghaberry is fulfilling and he relishes having an important say in the care plans of prisoners he has pastored to.

One senses an understandable frustration at the limits of the permanent deaconate which he accepts while acknowledging it would be immensely fulfilling to be able to hear confessions and impart the sacrament of the sick with general absolution.

For all the   joy of service one also senses that Andy’s ordination has changed the dynamic of his relationship with Mary that will take getting used to. It is still early days.

In their new home on the outskirts of Cookstown over tea and several surviving slices of a massive ordination cake that Mary baked herself they accept Andy’s ordination has changed their lives and believe it is “a beautiful grace”.

Andy: “Oh it has been a huge change. Mary and I did everything together and I am suddenly doing so many things as a deacon on my own [in a different parish]. It is very special but there is an absence within me that Mary is not part of all those things too.”

He accepts that Mary wishes to “retain her identity” involved as she is in their home parish of Cookstown.

Mary: “It’s made me very very unselfish. I’ve learned to forget about what I want. It’s what God wanted for Andy and I won’t stand in his way.”

Naturally she would like to have more of Andy and when they get away for a day “we want to go to where the Blessed Sacrament is and to pray together”.

As Andy prepares for his next homily he reflects on “what a privilege it is to be able to vest on a Sunday morning and to go out to serve God. “

There is no mistaking Mary’s support for Andy and their deep love for each other  but one gets the impression that the path they have taken is more testing than they realised.