From Irish chef to Alaskan minister, Deirdre Darr charts a path of Christian mission
By Katy Rice
It’s forty degrees and blowing sideways rain in Juneau, Alaska, but Deirdre Darr, new executive director for the Shrine of St. Therese, is happy to be here. This past June, Deirdre and her husband Ben packed up their 3 year-old son Quinn, and their most precious household belongings to set off on an epic road trip from Southaven, Mississippi to their new home in Southeast Alaska, fulfilling a lifelong dream for both of them to live in the Last Frontier. “We always wanted to live in a place where we could easily get to hiking,” Deirdre shared. “We love snowshoeing and you can’t snowshoe in Mississippi.” During the process of interviewing with the Diocese of Juneau, Deirdre spent a lot of time researching Juneau and Southeast. She recalls, “I did all this research on Juneau and Ben didn’t even want to hear it until it was certain. We had been dreaming about this for years, so he didn’t want to get his hopes up, just to have them dashed.”
Despite their family’s recent 3-year stay in Mississippi to be close to family, Deirdre is no stranger to cold or rain, having grown up in Chicago and also having spent time studying cooking and working in Ireland. Though Deirdre’s path to her new role as director of the Shrine has taken many twists and turns along the way, her affinity for ministry was apparent early on. “When I took the high school assessment of what career I should pursue, even at 14 years-old, it said I should either be a chef or a funeral home director. And at 14 I was like, ‘What the heck? I don’t want to be a funeral home director!’ But it was later on that someone explained that it meant I would be good for ministry.”
Leaving all undertaker aspirations behind, Deirdre pursued professional cookery in her early 20s, “I always wanted to try and be a chef so I decided to look into cooking schools, and in the states they are terribly expensive.” Deterred by the cost, a new way opened up when Deirdre visited family in Ireland and heard of Ballymaloe Cooking School, “Everyone said, ‘You should visit Ballymaloe while you’re here. And I’m like, ‘Bally-what?’ My family in Cork took me down to see the cookery school.” Deirdre was accepted and after her three-month course, she accepted a job as a chef at Ballymaloe House. During this time though, Deirdre came head on with the longing from St. Augustine’s famous quote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” She recalls, “It seems like that longing is elusive, it’s hard to put words to, but anyone who has experienced it knows it. A longing for Christ, but also a longing for a mission—that I was supposed to serve and not just in my spare time, but I was supposed to give my life to the church. I would take these really long walks by the ocean and constantly there was this knocking of ‘Why are you doing this and why aren’t you listening to me?’ An aunt asked me years later, ‘Why did you give up [cooking]? You could have been very successful and had your own [restaurant].’ And I told her, ‘Well, Jesus only knocks for so long before he takes out a baseball bat.’”
So Deirdre returned to the States and finished her undergraduate education at De Paul University in Chicago and then applied to the Masters of Divinity program at Aquinas Institute. For her final year at Aquinas, Deirdre did an internship as a chaplain at a children’s hospital, which is where she says, “the rubber hit the road in terms of ministry.” The hospital, though Catholic, Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, served a 200-mile radius in the middle of the Bible Belt and Deirdre remembers, “My biggest fear, as a Catholic, was praying out loud, extemporaneously.” Another surprise for Deirdre was how her chaplaincy was mostly for parents rather than children, “The CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) taught me the humility of being a minister because you are welcomed into somebody’s hospital room at the worst time in their lives: their child is dying, their child is really sick, their child has been in an accident.” One bittersweet experience during her chaplaincy was being asked to pray the rosary by the bedside of a child who was dying. After gathering rosaries for the family Deirdre began to pray, only to realize the family wasn’t joining in, “after the first ‘Hail Mary’ I stopped and I said, ‘Is there something wrong?’ and I found out they spoke Aramaic. They were from Bethlehem. And I said, ‘You lead, and I’ll just whisper it in English, because this is for you.’ It was a horrible thing, I was praying with them while their daughter was dying, but I also realized, this was the language Jesus spoke, how awesome is that?”
After completing her Masters of Divinity, Deirdre felt called to go to Northern Ireland to work in the peace process there. “After graduation I had nowhere to live, I didn’t have a job, and I had $1200 and I got on a plane to Belfast.” Within a week of arriving in Belfast Deirdre had found a place to live with two other single women, but finding a job took longer, “I remember I had paid the rent for July and I had enough food to make it through the month and then it was time to pay the rent for August, but after that I didn’t have enough money to eat for the week. That day I went to Mass on the outskirts of Belfast. There were farm fields right next to our subdivision. It was raining (because it’s Northern Ireland), and then the sun came out and there was this rainbow that came right down on top of our subdivision and I remembered God’s promise to Noah, so I thought, ‘All right, I’ll pay my rent.’ I think two days later I got a job with a sister who was working on an education program.” The program Deirdre collaborated on was to provide religious education to Catholic children who were not attending Catholic schools.
After returning from Ireland and during graduate school, Deirdre considered a religious vocation with the Daughters of Charity, “I love their charism (of serving the poor and marginalized) and it’s the charism that made sense to me.” Ultimately, Deirdre found her vocation as a married person when she met Ben Darr and they married in 2006. For the first four years of their marriage Deirdre and Ben lived in community at a Christian Brothers retreat house in Plano, Illinois where Deirdre coordinated retreats for high-school juniors. In 2009 they welcomed Quinn into their family.
Now that they are settled in Juneau, Deirdre is excited about her new role as Shrine director. Over the past few months she’s been streamlining the reservation process and the “day to day things that happen in the office, which can take up so much of our time.” Next will be developing a fund raising plan for the future to ensure the Shrine remains a vibrant part of the Juneau Diocese. Deirdre is also excited to use her experience as a retreat director and chaplain to develop a retreat program in the near future, “I would love to offer a retreat at the Shrine, whether it happens this year or next, but I really want to get more Catholic retreats on the calendar and more options for the people of Southeast.”
From Chicago to Ireland to Juneau, from chef to chaplain to retreat director, Deirdre brings many gifts, talents, and experiences to her new role as a minister in the Diocese of Juneau. After so many moves and adventures, Deirdre and Ben feel like they’ve found a home in Juneau. Looking out at the pouring rain, Deirdre confirms, “We love it here.”