On June 4, Archbishop Leonard P. Blair ordained 10 men to the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Hartford. This article profiles just one of them.
NEWINGTON – Over the July 4th weekend during the Saturday vigil Mass, newly ordained Deacon James Blanchette stood at the ambo and preached his first homily at his assigned parish, the Church of the Holy Spirit, on the Gospel message of “peace”:
“Jesus sent his followers into the world bearing one simple message. Jesus tells them, ‘Whatever household you enter, first say peace.’ ‘Peace’ is also the first word he says to them after the Resurrection when he appears in the upper room. It’s the great message. He is asking them, and today he is asking us, to carry it into the world 2,000 years later. God is still looking to us to be his laborers for the job of peace.”
Perhaps without realizing it, Deacon Blanchette has been bringing peace to others all his life.
James Blanchette was born in New Britain. He won a football scholarship to the University of New Haven in West Haven, where he majored in criminal justice/law enforcement. “My grandfather was a police officer, so I think that was part of it – having that example as a child,” he said.
In 1982 he joined the Hartford Police Department, where he spent 20 years working in numerous positions, including as a patrol officer, in internal affairs, in major crimes and as a field commander back on the streets.
“The beginning and the end, working in the streets, that was most enjoyable,” Deacon Blanchette said. “I liked having all the opportunities to meet different people. I really learned so much about culture and people,” he added, citing the many different neighborhoods and ethnic groups and cuisines throughout Hartford.
When he first began as a patrolman in the 1980s, he was assigned to Stowe Village. “They took two rookies and threw us in the roughest beat in the city,” he said. It was there that he first learned to employ conflict resolution skills to keep the peace. “If you didn’t learn that, you’d be fighting. You had to learn to defuse situations. The police veterans taught us that.”
He continued to develop his conflict resolution skills and build relationships in the community as a sergeant in internal affairs, where he investigated complaints against police officers.
“Before I took over, they averaged 150 complaints a year, but 90 percent were ‘discourteous attitude,’” he explained. “People weren’t happy with the service or with the officer, so it was getting a dialogue going with the people.” He said he simply talked to those who lodged complaints, resolving issues and reducing the number to 50 a year.
After he retired from the police force and tried his hand at some odd jobs, his spiritual life took an unexpected turn in October 2006. That month, he left his wife Barbara and daughter Amy at home and took a trip alone to Rio Grande Valley, Texas, to watch his then-20-year-old son Adam play the opening night of his first professional hockey game as a member of the minor league Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees.
While sightseeing on this trip, he visited the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle National Shrine in San Juan, Texas.
“It was October 21, 2006.” Deacon Blanchette recalled.
“I remember walking in and there were crutches and wheelchairs and a lot of different apparatus and I asked, ‘What’s this all about?’ and was told they were left there by people who were cured after they visited the shrine.”
He said that although he was raised Catholic, he wasn’t a regular churchgoer at the time and hadn’t been to confession in a while. “I sat there and I just got this overwhelming desire to go to confession.”
He met with Father Gregory Labus, then assistant to the rector of the shrine, who heard his confession. “He told me, ‘Go do something nice for somebody and be at church tomorrow,’” Deacon Blanchette recalled. “I went to Mass the next day. Something had changed.”
Father Labus now says, “I remember meeting Jim that day. I was impressed by Jim’s sincerity and the excitement he had in rediscovering his faith.”
“I tell people, ‘If you don’t believe in God, you need to start,’” Deacon Blanchette now says emphatically. “We’re all sinners. With all the temptations we all get lost, but we can all be found again. God is waiting for that opportunity to embrace us.”
Upon arriving home, he said, he immediately expressed his affection for his wife, which brought them closer together. In time, he began lectoring at his home church, Sacred Heart Parish in Berlin, and also made the switch into social service work.
In 2010, he was hired by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, where he now works in New Britain as a case manager in “Ongoing Services,” coordinating services in support of children and families.
“I enjoy working with the families – to be able to engage with people who may need some assistance. Nobody wants someone to come into their home and tell them what to do,” Deacon Blanchette said. “It’s a challenge to work together as a team for a successful outcome.”
In 2011, he began studying for the diaconate, a five-year program of night classes that culminated in his ordination with nine other men on June 4 at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford. Father Labus, who is now pastor of St. Joseph Church in Edinburg, Texas, traveled to Connecticut and was present at the ordination.
“It was very rewarding for me to witness Jim being ordained,” Father Labus said.
Father Lawrence Bock, pastor of Church of the Holy Spirit in Newington, served as Deacon Blanchette’s spiritual director during his studies for the diaconate. He said he is pleased to have the new deacon assigned to his parish.
“He brings a great deal from his past work as a police officer – empathy for people and insights into people. He always puts his best foot forward. I was very happy they sent him to us,” Father Bock said.
Deacon Blanchette is now looking to his future. “I’m looking forward to so many things,” he said, listing baptizing a baby and officiating at a wedding among them. “Everything is such an honor and a privilege – and nothing I would take for granted.”