Life’s joys, sorrows fuel a white-hat seminarian

As a child, Dominic “Mixie” Arcuri of LaPlace was nicknamed for an uncle who loved movie star Tom Mix, the cowboy who always wore a white, 10-gallon hat as he effortlessly vanquished stone-hearted desperadoes.

When he is ordained to the priesthood next June by Archbishop Gregory Aymond, Arcuri will be one month shy of 70, making him, it is believed, the oldest man ever to be ordained a priest for New Orleans.

For a second, forget about Tom Mix and his iconic white hat and chaps, Hollywood’s symbols of good triumphing over evil at high noon. Without the benefit of a sound stage – in the searing silence of real life, where agony and joy commingle – Mixie Arcuri has led an authentic white-hat life.

And now, he is studying among scores of 20-something seminarians at Notre Dame Seminary, where good men always wear black.

“I’m the third-oldest person at the seminary behind Archbishop (Alfred) Hughes and Father (David) Kelly,” Arcuri says with a laugh as he prepares for his final nine months of studies before ordination. “I know I’m the only seminarian receiving a Social Security check each month.”

Family raised vegetables

Mixie grew up in LaPlace. His father and uncles worked side-by-side growing tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower and shallots on a parcel of land near Airline Highway that grandfather Arcuri had purchased with other Italian families after the Great Depression. When Arcuri was a child, he rode with one of his uncles – his godfather – into the French Market to sell the produce.

Once, they couldn’t sell their entire load, so they spent the night in the French Quarter. Mixie’s uncle slept on the seat of the truck, and Mixie slept on the floorboard.

“It was a treat,” Arcuri recalled. “Early the next morning I got to go to Café du Monde.”

Arcuri had graduated from Ole Miss with a business degree – one year ahead of Archie Manning – when he met his future wife, Tru, at a friend’s apartment complex. They dated for four months before they got engaged, and they were married a few months after that in 1973.

Even as a teenager, Tru suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, a condition she inherited from her mother. After years of trying unsuccessfully to conceive, Tru went to Mixie and suggested they become parents through adoption. Going through Catholic Charities’ adoption services, they welcomed their first daughter, Leigh Ann, in 1981, and their second, Laura Catherine, in 1983.

Rheumatoid arthritis is progressive and debilitating, and Tru’s case became even more complicated because she was diabetic and insulin dependent. Mixie never heard her complain, even though surgery to fuse the bones in her wrists made her hands so sensitive that even the slightest tug would send shooting pains throughout her body.

“She was just such a loving model to me of accepting her crosses and never complaining,” Arcuri said. “She hurt, all day, every day of her life from the arthritis and the blood sugar fluctuating as wildly as it did. We were taking her blood sugar seven times a day, and she was taking shots five times a day. She never complained.”

‘Tru’ love overcomes pain

One of life’s awesome mysteries came when relatives and neighbors saw little Leigh Ann and Laura outfitted in Tru’s hand-crafted dresses. Tru mastered the art of crewel embroidery, somehow pushing her brittle fingers to guide a needle that could create intricate designs befitting the lilies of the field.

“We had the best-dressed girls in LaPlace,” Arcuri said, smiling. “I don’t know how she did it, but she loved doing it. The pain just came with it. She did that until the arthritis became so bad she had to put her needle away.”

In 1984, at the urging of Father Pete Bergeron of St. Joan of Arc Church in LaPlace, Arcuri began to think he might have a vocation as a permanent deacon.

“I’m pretty slow to discern,” Arcuri said. “It took me from 1984 to 1997 for me to see what this was all about.”

He went with Tru to his first inquiry meeting in 1997, along with 50 other couples.

“We were having conversations with some of these couples, and they were talking about their deep love for Christ and how active they were in their church parish,” Arcuri recalled. “When my wife and I left, I said, ‘We ain’t anywhere near these people. It’ll never work.’ But, we went through the process and were accepted in December 1997.”

Unspeakable tragedy

The day of inscrutable pain came a few months earlier, on May 9, 1997. It was a warm morning when Arcuri, a LaPlace banker, got a call from his younger brother, who was a St. John Parish sheriff’s deputy, telling him to come to their parents’ home, about three minutes away from the bank, because they weren’t answering their door.

Something didn’t seem right.

By the time Arcuri arrived, Tru was on the front lawn, crying hysterically. There were 20 police cars triple-parked in the quiet neighborhood.

The reality, even 20 years later, cannot be fully grasped. An auto mechanic with a video poker addiction had broken into Arcuri’s parents’ house, looking for cash, and bludgeoned Sam, 76, and Luella, 69, to death. The killer was caught in November 1997 in Texas after having killed six people to fuel his habit.

“They wouldn’t let me into the house, and my brother came out and told me,” Arcuri said. “I just knelt down on the grass outside and said, ‘Lord, I can’t handle this. I need your help.’ And, absolutely, from that point to now, God has given me the grace to accept what happened and be at peace.”

Just a few days after the killer was caught in Texas, Arcuri got a letter in the mail, from Archbishop Francis Schulte, inviting him into the diaconate formation program.

“Needless to say, my wife and I were at a low point,” Arcuri said. “That letter of invitation was such a blessing. To be in that environment with 24 other couples – while we were going through our grieving process and trying to get our lives back together – God absolutely put us in that diaconate program.”

Cared for wife

Arcuri was ordained as a permanent deacon in 2001, and he served since then at his home parish of St. Joan of Arc. Tru’s health continued to decline. She suffered a stroke, and for the last two years of her life, she was bedridden and needed 24-hour care. Arcuri would come home from work and take over the care duties.

“Only by the grace of God,” Arcuri said. “You know, it wasn’t easy, but I loved her and she loved me and we did for each other. We did what we said we were going to do the day we got married. I guess my biggest hurt was looking at her every day and knowing there was nothing I could do to make her better. When she passed away (in 2015), I don’t know how to explain this. I miss her so much every day, but I’m happy for her. She is not in any pain. She is in better shape now than she’s ever been.”

Hearing another call 

After Tru died, Arcuri began to have thoughts about the priesthood. He met with Archbishop Aymond, who had no reservations in accepting him as a seminarian, despite his age. Because he had 16 years of service as a permanent deacon – he has preached, witnessed marriages, conferred baptism and presided at funerals – Archbishop Aymond set up a modified seminary schedule that will lead Deacon Arcuri to ordination as a priest on June 2, 2018.

“I think they took into consideration my age, and if they kept me in the seminary too long, I was liable to die,” Deacon Arcuri said, laughing. “I think what I’m lacking in philosophy and theology, I will be able to bring to my ministry 42 years of married life, raising children, having grandchildren, enduring a big tragedy and dealing with grief.”

As Deacon Arcuri left weekday Mass last week – the Gospel was about Jesus telling his disciples to forgive others 70 times seven times – friends came up and told him the reading reminded them of him.

Deacon Arcuri said he prays for his parents’ killer, Daniel Blank, who is on death row at Angola, “every day of my life, by name.”

“I ask the Lord, before he draws his dying breath, that he reconciles with the Lord and can be in heaven for all eternity,” Deacon Arcuri said.

There’s a homily in there somewhere.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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