Father Dennis Hayes ministers to the men and women who protect
by luke eggleston
sun staff writer
The Good Shepherd is a well known scriptural image for God as he oversees and protects His flock.
Father Dennis Hayes has spent the last 20 years among a “flock of shepherds” who are on earth: the men and women in uniform who protect and serve.
Although an admirer of those he ministers to, Father Hayes freely admits that if he were not a priest, a career on the police force would not be his first choice.
“Would I? If I could now? No. I don’t have enough courage. And I mean that most sincerely. I can draw courage from these people, but to say would I want to do it now or could I do it now, the answer would be no,” he said.
Nevertheless, Father Hayes has established himself as a shepherd for the shepherds. When he was a pastor at Corpus Christi Church just outside of Syracuse in 1988, he asked then-Syracuse Diocese Bishop Joseph O’Keefe if he could accept a position as the human resources director knowing it was a long shot.
“I didn’t think he’d call someone out of parish work to do this kind of work,” Father Hayes said. To his surprise, the late bishop encouraged Father Hayes to accept it.
In addition to serving in the sheriff’s office and at Corpus Christi, Father Hayes took on the responsibility of administrator at St. Patrick’s Church in Otisco two years ago.
Over the course of the last 20 years, Father Hayes has come to consider the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office to be a kind of parish.
“It’s specific in that it’s law enforcement, but in this agency alone, we have 650 sworn members, so you take that plus support staff, we’re up to 700 plus and most of them have families so it’s really like a parish of 700. Plus all the other agencies that I get involved with really in Central New York,” said Father Hayes.
Since accepting the position, Father Hayes has been involved with numerous agencies in a critical response capacity. Among the situations he has been called to minister at are events of national tragedy: the aftermath of Flight TWA 800, ground zero following the events of 9/11, Miami in the wake of Hurricane Andrew.
In each instance, he has been impressed and inspired by men and women who plunge into dangerous environments.
“I really find the police to be a brave group,” he said. “There’s something in their personality. I suppose it’s an old line, but they’re running toward things that other people are running away from.”
Father Hayes’ role in any crisis is sifting through the aftermath to find and console those who have suffered the impact first-hand.
He cites Flight TWA 800 as the worst situation he has faced in terms of trauma, noting that he can’t quite explain why exactly. But the scene at ground zero in New York City on Sept. 12, 2001, was the first at which he felt perhaps his life might be at risk. With fire and smoke threading through the buildings, and the Millenium Building on the cusp of collapse, Father Hayes strongly considered a strategic retreat. But once again, the inspiration of “his flock” prompted Father Hayes to remain.
“I thought, ‘You just ought to get out of here.’ But then I looked at the people, hundreds of people, down there, and I thought, ‘You know? These guys are staying, then I’m staying,’” he said.
As a young man attending St. Patrick’s Church on Syracuse’s west end, Father Hayes perceived the church as an institution capable of tremendous good in the world. He also admired the position of the priest.
“At 17 or 18, I saw the church as a pretty powerful institution (for doing good) and I think I was drawn to that,” Father Hayes said. “Frankly, back then a priest was viewed as one of the Walter Cronkites of the world, they were the most trusted. “
Between 1976 and 1988, Father Hayes was assigned to several parishes including St. Patrick’s in Oneida, St. Matthew’s in East Syracuse and Holy Family in Fairmount. While ministering at St. Matthew’s, he served as a licensed emergency medical technician and was appointed as the sheriff’s office chaplain. During that period he developed a rapport with the law enforcement officials he had come to admire.
Next to Father Hayes’ books on trauma and therapy sit several crime novels. For him, there has always been a certain amount of romance associated with the police. He noted, however, that law enforcement officials are dealing with a drama that involves matters of life and death.
“I think there’s some romance with it. You become involved in some real critical issues. Not to sound melodramatic, but you start dealing with people’s lives,” he said, “their spirituality, which we have found to be one of the key components to wellness or wholeness especially to people in emergency services.”
Until recently, Father Hayes avoided interviews with the press, noting that he wanted to avoid the spotlight. Finally, he acknowledged that exposure to the media would allow him a chance to praise the men and women that he ministers to and finds so admirable.
“I like to make it about the people. I really like to make it about the police,” he said. “I never did interviews for a long time until I realized that it’s a good opportunity to say some good things about really good people doing a difficult job.”
In addition to his many other civic responsibilities, Father Hayes teaches at several police academies. He said he always uses such opportunities to thank the cadets who may one day patrol his neighborhood.
“I say to them, ‘Thank you very much for what you’re doing because I’m getting older and you’re going to be protecting me. I feel honored to be part of your training.’ But I’ll look at them and I’ll say, ‘I have no idea why you’re doing what you’re doing in this day and age with all the problems that we have — everything from the judicial system to civil liabilities. You’re basically being dipped into people’s tragedy and negativity and their trauma.’ And then I thank them again,” he said.