This story originally ran in the August 2015 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
By Elizabeth Wong Barnstead | WKC
Owensboro seminarian James “Jamie” Dennis is known by friends and family for his love of trains. But there’s no doubt that the Caneyville native credits his faith community for keeping him on the right track.
His love for trains is deeply rooted. He enjoys Amtrak trips around the country and his family’s farm has a life-sized train – complete with tracks – that Dennis built with his father.
Dennis finds it convenient to have the two-mile-long railway on the farm. Having lost his sight as a child, Dennis told The Western Kentucky Catholic he can’t just jump on an ATV to drive around the property. He takes the train instead.
Dennis, who will be ordained to the transitional diaconate for the Diocese of Owensboro on August 8, said his love of trains gives him unique ministry opportunities.
While on his Amtrak trips, which he takes on his own, Dennis often encounters fellow travelers who learn he is a Catholic seminarian. People notice Dennis when he quietly says the Liturgy of the Hours in his seat: not only is he chanting prayers, but he is reading those prayers from his Braille breviaries.
“Some have fallen away from the Church and find comfort in talking to a regular stranger,” said Dennis. “Others are regular Mass-goers who just want to talk. It’s all a ministry opportunity.”
Dennis also has a “great fondness” for the Eastern churches, both those Catholic and Orthodox.
He has visited and prayed at an Antiochian Orthodox church in Bowling Green, and likes the Byzantine (Eastern Catholic) chapel at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, where he attends seminary.
Dennis is drawn to the tactile Byzantine icons that are textured with carved wood or metal and embossed images. He said these types of icons were often utilized by blind monks and nuns to assist in their prayers.
Dennis was a cradle Catholic but lost interest in the faith as a teenager. However, when attending Brescia University to study business, he realized he could easily walk to campus Mass, and this soon became a habit.
Fast-forward to completing his sacraments of initiation with his confirmation in Brescia’s chapel, and later, his being told he should consider the priesthood.
He became the first blind seminarian to attend St. Meinrad, and though Dennis admits it hasn’t all been easy, “the love of the people of God and of our diocese keeps me motivated.”
“The main thing I want to do is bring Jesus to his people and bring them the comfort he’s given me,” said Dennis.
This summer Dennis is serving as seminarian intern at Blessed Mother Parish in Owensboro: “They keep me busy. I visit hospitals once or twice a week and am currently giving a series of reflections focused on the Liturgy of the Hours.”
Dennis said he also feels a closeness with parishioners who recently migrated to the United States: “I’m a minority myself, and I understand what it’s like.”
Dennis said that while some people become nervous or judgmental when ministering to someone who looks different, “I don’t judge based on appearance – because I can’t see them.”
“The first thing I think of is the person and looking into their soul,” he said. Besides, “Jesus hung out with everybody, not just ‘normal’ people.”
Dennis also said his experience as a blind seminarian has brought about some amusing situations.
As a second-year seminarian at St. Meinrad he was once in charge of selecting the priests’ vestments for Mass. He always did this in the evening, and being blind had no need to turn the lights on in the sacristy. He kept track of the vestment types with labels, and it usually was not too difficult.
One night, working in the dark room, he heard the door open and said hello to the newcomer.
“A monk screamed and jumped 10 feet,” said Dennis. “I scared him half to death.”
Surprises aside – the story was spread widely afterward – Dennis commented that parishes’ having him around is not a bad deal.
“I can really save a place on their electric bill,” he quipped.