The building project was important to Maureen and Lee Poche. In 2013, with Lee contentedly retired from his financial oversight of a New Orleans business, the Poches decided to do a backyard makeover at their home near St. Rita Church in New Orleans.
Their relatively nondescript backyard would be transformed, in a few months, into a quaint, covered porch with an outdoor fireplace leading to a swimming pool, whose refreshing water would take the edge off another endless New Orleans summer.
The Poches didn’t realize until after their remodeling plans were in place that the plain, outdoor canvas would become a grotto, a place of prayer, where for the final two years of Maureen’s life they could talk to each other and to God, trying to make sense of death and about what would come next.
There was no pain, just a marble-size lump between Maureen’s collarbone and neck.
“She kept saying, ‘This is strange,’” Lee recalled.
Being a husband and doing what husbands do – trying not to alarm his wife – Lee shrugged it off and told Maureen: “Don’t worry about it.”
Finally, in November 2013, Maureen went to the doctor. The lump in her lymph nodes was a sign that the Stage 4 ovarian cancer had spread throughout her body.
“By that time, it was too late,” Lee said.
Although they exhausted every option offered by oncologists in New Orleans and at Houston’s M.D. Anderson, the prognosis was clear. Radical treatments were ruled out due to the extent to which the cancer already had spread.
Twenty-two months after the initial diagnosis, Maureen passed away on Aug. 22, 2015 – the Feast of the Queenship of Mary. Because of their great passion as marriage preparation mentors in the archdiocese and their fund-raising efforts for Notre Dame Seminary and the International Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, two archbishops and 13 priests attended Maureen’s Funeral Mass, a celebration of her purpose-filled life.
“She was the communicator in the group; she could talk to anybody,” Lee said. “When we did marriage prep together, I was maybe the teacher and the timekeeper, and she was the feelings communicator. She was the one who was rambling. She was Irish.”
As the Poches and their two children – son Kevin (and his wife Rachel and 3-year-old daughter Adair) and daughter Celeste – tried to deal with the certainty of losing their mother, Maureen and Lee used the backyard as their chapel of communing with God.
“We took on the construction project in the backyard because we knew that in the last two or three years, we wouldn’t be able to travel much and this would be a nice place to be,” Lee said. “We thought it would be longer. A few times we brought her wheelchair up to the pool and she got in the pool.”
In the months after Maureen’s funeral, Lee continued to pray about his own future. He had just completed his role as director of the capital campaign to renovate the Our Lady of Prompt Succor Shrine on State Street, and the thought kept coming up that he should think about becoming a permanent deacon.
On Jan. 1, 2016 – the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God – Lee was serving Mass for Archbishop Gregory Aymond at the shrine.
“I was in the sacristy, and just knowing that I wanted to pursue the permanent diaconate, I asked the archbishop when the next permanent diaconate class was going to be called,” Lee said. “He gave me those eyes and said, ‘Think about something else.’”
“Something else” was the priesthood.
Over the next several months, Lee, 58, prayed about what the archbishop had said. He spoke to Father Joe Krafft and Father Gary Copping, who both were married and then widowed before entering the seminary.
“I knew Father Krafft’s story,” Lee said. “His wife died of ovarian cancer. We had a very good discussion, but I was concerned I might be bringing back painful memories for him.”
After a few months, as the question of entering the seminary loomed larger, Lee said his primary concern was the effect his decision would have on his children.
“The major question was how is this going to affect the kids and my time with the kids,” Lee said. “They had just lost a mom; I didn’t want them to feel like they were also losing a dad. I spoke to the archbishop about it and he didn’t bat an eye. He said, ‘For the rest of your life, no matter what you do, your kids come first.’ I so appreciated hearing that from him, so I asked him, ‘Would you mind telling the kids that?’”
A few days later, Archbishop Aymond came over to Lee’s house and talked to his children and granddaughter.
“He spent an hour with them, and he was praying with Adair out by where the construction project is,” Lee said. “They had heard it from me, but hearing it from him made them feel a lot better.”
At age 58, Lee returned to school in August – for the first time in 35 years – at Notre Dame Seminary. The guy who grew up in Crowley, Louisiana, and attended Notre Dame High School is now navigating his way through a special formation program tailored to students his age.
“I wasn’t nervous until I sat in a desk for the first time,” Lee said. “A lot of the other seminarians had laptops, and here I am with a pencil and paper.”
Lee figures that kind of retro experience – in business and in married life – will come in handy as an ordained priest, perhaps as early as 2019.
“It feels right,” Lee said. “It’s not a leap of faith, just the next chapter. Maureen was always the religious one, but on more than one occasion, she told me in jest, but not totally in jest, you should’ve been a priest.”
When he needs to get away and do his studying, Lee retreats to his backyard oasis. The water is there. So is Maureen. Their life tree, planted by the water, has deep roots.
Lee has thought about his new growth as a priest. The winds will blow. He will be asked big questions.
“I think when a couple is having some marriage issues, I can throw my arms around them and say, ‘I’ve been there. I can help you. Let’s talk about it,’” Lee said.