Dan Haggerty takes great delight in recalling the biblical story of Saul, the one-time scourge of Christians, and how Saul became St. Paul on the road to Damascus.
The white-maned, white-bearded, “Irish to the bone” Haggerty held a thumb and index finger inches apart as he likened Saul’s bolt from the blue to his own.
“It was a window that opened and closed that quickly,” Haggerty said. “It happened in a flash … and just like with Saul, it changed my life completely.”
Haggerty is chaplain for the New Orleans office of the FBI and the Slidell Police Department. That’s the “Paul” chapter.
The “Saul” chapter opened, appropriately enough, in the tough Irish Channel neighborhood of New Orleans where Haggerty grew up, dropped out of high school and gained a well-deserved reputation as a barroom brawler.
Haggerty came from a long judicial bloodline: his grandfather was a clerk of court in New Orleans, seemingly from the days of Moses, and his father followed in those footsteps to take the job; his uncle, Edward Haggerty, was a longtime New Orleans criminal district court judge.
“It was in my blood,” Haggerty said. “Courtrooms, politics … it’s what I grew up with. My grandfather was clerk of court from 1919 to 1970. Then, he handed the job off to my father. My father had plans to do the same for me.”
What his progenitors didn’t count on was the young Haggerty’s penchant for walking into a barroom and not backing down if somebody looked at him the wrong way.
When he dropped out of Fortier High School, a lot of people may have written him off. “It was actually my goal back then to be a badass,” Haggerty said. “You walk into a bar, somebody says something: pow! A brawl.
“But I joined the Navy at 17,” Haggerty said. “This was during the height of the Vietnam War. My mom and dad had to sign for me. I was on a ‘kiddie cruise’ — that’s where you serve 3½ years and get credit for four. I got back from Vietnam in ’66 with a full GI bill and everything. But all I was doing was bouncing from job to job, and my dad was on (me) sabout getting a degree. Every day, he rode me about that: ‘Get your degree.’ ”
Finally, Haggerty Sr. brought Haggerty Jr. to Loyola University and got his son into school. Haggerty started with 12 hours at night, eventually increased it to 21 hours and earned a degree in business. He graduated from the Institute for Court Management and landed an adminstrative job in district court. Then, he joined the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.
“My idea back then was that I would remain a deputy for a few years, then run for clerk of court and take over my dad’s job,” he said.
“My wife, Janet, hated that. She hated New Orleans politics. Something had to change.
“One day, Janet came up to me and said, ‘At least we can make a novena … pray about it.’ OK, so I went on this novena.
“Up to then, basically, I was a Catholic in name only. When we did go to church, we were the last ones in and the first ones out. And we always sat in the last pew.
“I heard the pastor say the archbishop was looking for men to become lay deacons. I had never heard of deacons. I had no idea what a deacon was. But Janet was praying for change. I knew something had to happen.”
What happened was the marginally Catholic Haggerty dropped out of the race, returned all the money that donors had sent him for his campaign, applied for the diaconate program, was rejected, reapplied and was finally accepted.
Here’s where Haggerty spread that thumb and index finger: “This all happened in such a short, tiny period of time. I went to formation. Did the psychological testing. Studied exegesis, Old Testament, New Testament, documents of the church … I knew that something was happening inside me. I just didn’t know what. I could feel it, and I knew that Janet could see that her prayers were being answered.”
Dan Haggerty became “Deacon Dan,” and as a former cop, it was only natural that he became the chaplain for police officers, in his case for the Slidell Police Department and later for the New Orleans office of the FBI.
“I meet people where they are,” Haggerty said. “It doesn’t matter what their faith is, what their relationship with God is. I’m there to listen … and to help from the perspective of my background. I’m there for the FBI agents and FBI support staff. … They have to trust me. I think they really do. That’s important. Hey, they even have me playing Santa Claus during Christmas season.”
As Haggerty prepares for the 35th anniversary of his ordination to the diaconate this fall, he loves telling people how he had that experience, just as Saul did when he came out on the other end as St. Paul.
“It was just that quick,” Haggerty said as he held up that thumb and index finger only inches apart. “Just that quick.”