This is the second of two articles introducing the two men scheduled to be ordained priests for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee on Saturday, May 16, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee.
Dennis Saran moved to Wisconsin in 1980 with an impressive academic résumé. He had earned a degree from Northwestern University in biomedical engineering, completed medical school at Loyola University and was beginning his internship and residency in pediatric medicine at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
So it came as a surprise when, on a trip to Milwaukee to visit his second-oldest son, one of his eight children, that Dennis’ father, John Saran, told his academically accomplished son, “I always thought you were going to be my priest.”
Two marriages, three children and some 35 years later, Deacon Dennis Saran, 59, will become the priest his father thought he might be when he is ordained for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee on Saturday, May 16, by
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee.
While his father will not be there to see it happen – he died in 2011 while Deacon Saran was a seminarian – much of his extended family will be on hand for the ordination, including his mother, Rosemary, and his three daughters from his first marriage: Amanda, 31; Michelle, 28; and Kelly, 25.
“I remember talking to him when I applied to the seminary,” recalled Deacon Saran in an interview with the Catholic Herald in late April. His father was in ill health and had suffered a stroke. “I said, ‘Dad, I’m applying to the seminary,’ and I got no response, so I waited a couple months and reminded him that I talked to him a couple months ago. You once said you wanted me to be a priest … and you didn’t say anything when I told you.”
Finally, John responded, telling his son, “I never expected you to get this far.”
“I guess he was telling me he never expected I’d make it as a doctor, and anything after that was just gravy,” said Deacon Saran, chuckling at the memory.
Exceeding his father’s expectations, Deacon Saran enjoyed a successful career as a pediatrician, practicing in the Waukesha area at a large, multispecialty clinic.
He and his second wife, Beverly, the office manager for his practice, Pediatric Healthcare, enjoyed the good life.
They lived in a large Waukesha home, enjoyed traveling and had purchased a second, eventual retirement home in Tucson, Arizona.
“I never really understood how much of a person my dad was in the community,” admitted Michelle in an interview with the Catholic Herald. “He never did talk about it, but when he left his office, all the letters I got to look at from from his patients. He touched so many lives; children made cards for him, and some of the parents wrote long letters how he saved their child,” she said, adding, “I really had no idea how special of a man he was in the field of medicine. And now he’s transitioning that and will make it more for souls for their faith life.”
But that world erupted when Beverly was diagnosed with lung cancer on Feb. 9, 2009, and died six weeks later on April 25.
After her death, Deacon Saran recalled going through the motions, continuing his work, yet feeling empty and dissatisfied.
Interestingly, about six years before Beverly died, Deacon Saran was pulled back to the Catholic faith of his roots.
“God started to call me for something, but I did not know what,” he said, describing how he began reading the lives of the saints and other religious matter. “A year or two before my wife became sick, I was reading one or two hours every night and I remember thinking, ‘God, what is it you are doing?’”
Throughout his life, Deacon Saran practiced his faith, attending Mass and making sure his daughters attended religious education classes. He admitted, however, he was not overly involved in his parish, St. William, Waukesha.
Yet, he remembers talking to Beverly, telling her that if something were to happen to her, he might consider the priesthood. It was a calling he had felt early on in his life when he served as an altar server through high school and in college where, by his senior year, he was attending daily Mass.
Yet, he instead followed in the footsteps of his older brother and became a doctor.
Late in the summer after Beverly died, Deacon Saran went on a retreat in northern Wisconsin, hoping to understand where God might be calling him. But after five days of silent reflection he had no answer.
“I came out of the retreat and I got nothing,” he said, adding that on the ride home, it occurred to him that he had never specifically asked God; he was instead waiting for something to happen.
He returned home and contacted Fr. Jim Lobacz, then vocation director for the archdiocese, and learned that there were no impediments to ordination for him, but his age, then 55, was on the high side.
Fortunately, however, for his future plans, he had done everything right to that point. For example, after his first marriage ended in divorce, Deacon Saran received an annulment. He married in the church, which had he not, would also have derailed any plans for the priesthood.
“All those pegs, as I look backwards, all fit in and made me ready for this,” he said of his decision to pursue the priesthood.
Because the archdiocese was between archbishops – Archbishop Timothy J. Dolan had left for New York and Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki had not yet been appointed – he had to wait until there was an archbishop to give him the go-ahead to enter the seminary.
That happened in spring 2010 when Deacon Saran met with Archbishop Lisecki and found they shared Chicago roots. At the end of the interview, however, the archbishop told Deacon Saran, “I don’t know what to do with you.”
Deacon Saran went home puzzled.
“I didn’t know if he said, ‘yes or no.’ I called Fr. Jim (Lobacz) that night and told him I didn’t know what the answer was,” said Deacon Saran.
Fr. Lobacz investigated and learned that the archbishop had given him the OK to apply to the seminary, but would have to decide whether Deacon Saran, as an older seminarian, would be better off in formation at Sacred Heart School of Theology or at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary with the younger seminarians.
The eventual decision kept him at Saint Francis de Sales, yet Deacon Saran noted he is closer in age to the faculty and, in fact, is four years older than the rector, Fr. John Hemsing.
That hasn’t stopped him from battling it out on the volleyball court with his younger classmates or hitting the water slides in the Wisconsin Dells with former classmate, Fr. Peter Kimani, last year.
Deacon Saran’s playful side is no surprise to his daughters who described their father as funny with a childlike side.
“If we’re on a waterslide, he’ll push us aside so he can go first,” laughed Kelly of the dad she remembers playing Barbies with his girls. Michelle described a father who walked around with “big goofy slippers at the office,” and loved to juggle Cabbage (Patch) heads.
They described him as an imaginative father who would go “to the max” helping his daughters with diorama projects.
“We’d go to the craft store and he’d go all out,” said Kelly, describing one globe project Deacon Saran helped Amanda create that was so over-the-top big that the paper maché balloon globe would not even fit through the door.
Watching their father journey toward priesthood has not been without concerns, admitted Kelly and Michelle.
While they are proud of his decision, they said they were initially concerned they would see less of their father.
“I feel proud of him and know he gave up a lot,” said Kelly, adding some people think he’s crazy, “giving up his house, money, lifestyle for God. I think it’s commendable and want to support him,” but she admitted she is nervous her father won’t be as accessible to her.
“How important is it to (the church) that they preserve the family unit?” she asked, adding, “I wrestle with that.”
As their father’s ordination approached, in fact, his daughters attempted to contact the archbishop to request that he be placed in a parish closer to their home in Waukesha. They eventually met with Rick Tank, of the priest placement board and pleaded their case.
Deacon Saran’s assignment as associate pastor of Christ King and St. Bernard parishes, Wauwatosa, is relatively close to their home, and while Deacon Dennis appreciated his daughters’ concern, he reminded them he belongs to the church, now.
“I told them it was very nice, but don’t ever do that again,” he said with a laugh. “The church will come first for me, but they are older. We are very close and I’ll continue to see them often and be part of their lives.”
His daughters, however, won’t be part of Deacon Saran’s worshipping congregation. Although all three are religious, Amanda and Kelly have converted to Islam and Michelle, the only one of the three who is confirmed Catholic, is married to a Jehovah Witness and described herself as spiritual and a follower of various beliefs.
“I do like to see what my dad is doing, and I like to hear his homilies,” she said, adding she plans to attend some of his Masses.
Kelly sees the parallels between her father’s spiritual journey and hers. She converted to Islam about five years ago and described her faith as a way of living.
“I expect him to support me in my religious journey and vice versa. We want to support him in his religious journey,” she said. “I think we respect each other and make each other stronger in our faiths. He helps me in my faith and I help him become a better Catholic priest.”
As Deacon Saran looks toward his priesthood, he expects that his many experiences, including husband, father, doctor and soon-to-be grandfather, as Michelle is expecting his first grandchild in June, will help him relate to his parishioners.
“I feel blessed with my life experiences, not challenged,” he said, adding, “I have been through a lot, but everybody has a story.”
His many experiences “make me more humble to understand people better,” he said and will “help me bring Christ to the people in the way I have experienced him.”