Deacon Francis Anthony Waguespack Jr. doesn’t look much like a pioneer.

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Deacon Francis and Louise Waguespack

His once booming voice is soft now. His body struggles with the cancer that confines him to his home. His memory sometimes confuses names of good friends.

But his spirit remains that of a trailblazer. As the first permanent deacon ordained in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Deacon Waguespack paved the way for the 77 men who have followed him into the diaconate program that was revived by Pope Paul VI after the Second Vatican Council.

“Somebody had to start the program. I was so much involved in my religious beliefs, I said, ‘Doggone it, I’m going to do it,’ ” said Deacon Waguespack, who is a parishioner and retired deacon at St. Philip Church in Vacherie.

So Deacon Waguespack studied for the diaconate, was ordained and was soon baptizing, preaching and performing marriages – religious duties previously performed only by the priests in this diocese.

“The people of St. Philip were very receptive,” he said. “And Monsignor Arthur Lieux (then pastor of St. Philip) backed me all the way.”

The people were actually very excited, because he was the first in the diocese, said Waguespack’s daughter, Anne. They were happy to have someone young at the time, because it seems we always had older priests.

The 84-year-old deacon, who is celebrating the 35th anniversary of his ordination this year, said he knew little to nothing about the diaconate program back in the early 1970s. He heard of a man in neighboring St. John the Baptist Civil Parish who was going to be ordained a deacon. “I said, ‘What the heck is that?’ I asked that he come and see me because I wanted to learn more. He came, all vested. After he finished talking, I said, ‘Who do I have to see to get in? This is what I want.’ I kept repeating that, ‘This is exactly what I want.’ ”

Because there was no program in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Deacon Waguespack studied with a group of men from the Diocese of Houma–Thibodaux, through the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Deacon Waguespack said there was some conflict as to whether he would serve the Diocese of Baton Rouge or the Archdiocese of New Orleans, but he said eventually (the late) Bishop Joseph Sullivan asked for him. On May 9, 1976, Bishop Sullivan ordained him at St. Philip Church.

Shorty after ordination, Deacon Waguespack and Monsignor Andrew Frey set up a committee to establish a diaconate formation program in this diocese. Four years later, 13 men were ordained, the first class formed and ordained in this diocese. At present there are 64 deacons in the diocese and another 10 men were recently accepted as candidates.

Deacon Albert Ellis, a member of that 1980 class, said Deacon Waguespack was instrumental in setting up and promoting the program in the diocese. “Baton Rouge was one of the last dioceses in the Southeast to decide it wanted deacons. Some of the priests were hesitant at first,” Deacon Ellis said. But he added, Deacon Waguespack was always working in the background to get the program going. In his first year of formation, Deacon Ellis said, his class traveled to Lafayette for classes, but by the second year, classes were held at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Baton Rouge.

Deacon Waguespack and his wife, Louise, hosted many deacon gatherings. “We used to meet at Francis’ house and we would talk about what needed to be done. Francis would lead the discussion. There was no support group or anything for deacons at the time. Francis and his wife opened their home to us,” Deacon Ellis said. Deacon Waguespack put a lot of time and effort into his own church parish and into the diocesan program, Deacon Ellis added.

A life of service is nothing new to Deacon Waguespack. He served for 15 years as a member and president of the St. James Civil Parish Police Jury, building a hospital, library and courthouse as well as paving roads.

“When I quit that, it was the best thing I ever did because that’s when I found out about the diaconate,” he said. He was already active at St. Philip doing “anything they needed me to do.” He also owned a furniture and appliance business and was the father of five. He looked at the diaconate as another opportunity to serve.

When Louise Waguespack commented that her husband was always helping people through his positions on the police jury, in the church or in his business, the deacon humbly added, “I had to fulfill some of the beatitudes.”

What did he enjoy most about being a deacon? Preaching, he said. “And I used to carry the cross on Good Friday. I can hear myself singing, ‘This is the Wood of the Cross.’ That’s what I miss.”

Deacon Waguespack retired as a deacon when he suffered the first of three aneurysms in 1992. Seven years later, he suffered a second aneurysm and then a third. He was later diagnosed with cancer in his colon, liver and abdomen. The doctors gave him only a few months to live. That was two years ago.

Pointing to a rosary and crucifix next to his chair, he said. “That’s where the medicine for survival comes from – the rosary and prayer.”

Father Chris Decker, now pastor of St. Philip, said of Deacon Waguespack: “I feel privileged to have some of the first deacons ordained after reinstatement of the permanent diaconate. It certainly adds to the rich library of cultural and spiritual experiences in this very historic and very Catholic part of our diocese. Even through Deacon Waguespack isn’t able to join me in the sanctuary due to his health, there is never a doubt in my mind, he is spiritually present at every Mass. That’s the nature of the diaconate, service in whatever manner the Holy Spirit allows.”

Deacon Waguespack said men considering the diaconate should be willing to dedicate themselves to the church, perhaps waiting to study after their families have grown. They should also have the support of their wives.

But his best advice: “Sometimes you just have to keep smiling,” he said.

Those studying to be deacons in the Diocese of Baton Rouge express their desire for candidacy during Mass April 10 at St. Joseph Cathedral. Bishop Robert W. Muench congratulates, from left, Chauvin Wilkinson, Steven Wallace, Mark Berard, Glen Gulino, Leon Murphy, Michael Thompson, Stephen Ourso, Louis McGinnis, David Dawson and Tommy Benoit. Photo by Laura Deavers | The Catholic Commentator