Fifty cents as a sexton leads to 25 years as a priest

Miscellany/Christina Lee Knauss: Father Dennis B. Willey displays his shako, the military cap he wore while a Citadel cadet, and a model of one of the helicopters he flew in the Army in his office at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Chapin.

CHAPIN—Father Dennis Willey’s journey to the priesthood started in silent, precious hours he spent as a child  in his hometown parish in Connecticut. 

“I worked as a sexton at the church and was paid 50 cents a trip to go there in the mornings and evenings,” he said. “I would be there in the quiet, and it would be my privileged space, time for me to sit alone in prayer, or to sing if I wanted to.”

Those times alone with God while he worked sparked a desire to become a priest, which started in earnest when he was 15. 

He nurtured his vocation through four years at The Citadel and five years of service as a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army, then entered the seminary in 1989.  He was ordained by Bishop David B. Thompson at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston in 1994. 

Now, Father Willey is preparing to celebrate his 25th jubilee, and he looks back with joy on his years as a priest in the Diocese of Charleston. 

The official celebration will be June 29-30 at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Chapin, where Father Willey has served as pastor since 2016. His mother, siblings, other members of his family and friends will travel to the Midlands to attend Mass and a special dinner in his honor. 

The priest confesses with a smile that the festive occasion makes him a little nervous. 

“I can’t believe it and it’s almost surreal to me that I am celebrating 25 years already, and there is a little bit of anxiety because I don’t like being the focus of attention,” he said. “But I remember something Bishop Thompson told me when I was nervous about my ordination. He told me to remember that events like this are not for me, they are for the people of God.” 

Provided: Father Willey stands with friends and family in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston on the day of his ordination in 1994.

He came to love Charleston and South Carolina during his four years at The Citadel, where he earned a degree in political science. After graduation, he joined the Army and went to flight school, where he became a helicopter pilot and spent a year in Korea. 

When he left the service, Father Willey knew he was ready to study for the priesthood, and he knew where he wanted to go. 

“From the moment I left the military, I felt the Holy Spirit was calling me back to the Diocese of Charleston,” he said. “I knew this state needed priests and I knew this was where I wanted to be.”

He initially studied to be a priest under the sponsorship of the Archdiocese of Hartford, and attended St. Thomas the Apostle Seminary in Bloomfield, Conn., and Saint Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore. 

While still a seminarian, he wrote a letter to Bishop Thompson requesting to be accepted as a a priest for the Diocese of Charleston, and his wish came true when the bishop agreed. 

Over the past 25 years, Father Willey has taken on a wide variety of roles in the diocese. He was parochial vicar at Christ Our King Church in Mount Pleasant and at the Cathedral, then served as pastor at St. Mary Our Lady of Ransom Church in Georgetown, Church of the Nativity on James Island, and Sacred Heart Church in Charleston. He also held several roles at the diocesan level, including vocations director, master of ceremonies, and defender of the bond. 

During his time at Sacred Heart, Father Willey got to return to his alma mater when he took over campus ministry at The Citadel in 2007.  At the same time, he was the supply priest at the College of Charleston. 

“I would essentially give three different homilies on the same readings every weekend,” he said with a smile. “There was the one for the parish, and then others for the college students. I could be very blunt about some spiritual topics with The Citadel cadets, but had to handle it a different way with the College of Charleston students.” 

He now loves his work at Our Lady of the Lake, which he says is one of the most vibrant parishes he has served. 

Father Willey said during all his different assignments, the biggest honor has been the chance to celebrate Mass daily and bring the Eucharist to God’s people. 

“I have had 25 years of happiness,” he said. “I have been truly blessed since the day I entered the seminary. Has it all been easy? No, there have absolutely been challenges, but I have been so blessed. God has been so good to me, and I just pray I continue to be a faithful servant and that my ministry has truly been for the salvation of souls.”