Eric Ayers ponders: ‘Maybe this is the life for me in a fuller sense’
Most of the Catholic parishioners who knew Deacon Eric Ayers as he served in a variety of parish ministry assignments while in the seminary probably never knew he was once a professional musician and later a full-time gardener at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s ancestral home outside Charlottesville.
But Deacon Ayers gave up both livelihoods when he entered the diocese’s priestly formation program back in late August 2004. He will be ordained to the priesthood on Saturday, June 18.
Born in Richmond Sept. 11, 1968, he is one of seven children of Joseph and Anne Carol Ayers, who now live in Bremo Bluff, a rural community on the James River in Fluvanna County, about an hour west of Richmond. Among his siblings is a twin brother, Christopher.
Although he has Catholic family roots through his paternal grandmother and had been baptized Catholic as an infant, Eric did not embrace the Catholic faith until 2000 when he, his parents and twin brother, entered the RCIA at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Richmond. They were received into the Church at the following Easter vigil.
They had regularly visited the grandmother, a devout Catholic, at her home in Richmond and on weekend visits would attend Mass with her at Our Lady of Lourdes and during Lent would participate in the Stations of the Cross. They went together as a family.
“After my grandmother’s death we wanted to remain close to what she loved,” Deacon Ayers told The Catholic Virginian. “We have a very loving family.”
Perhaps the reason there was a delay in becoming a Catholic stemmed from the frequent travel most of the family had as professional musicians. They traveled mainly on the East coast. He had already graduated from Fluvanna County High School in 1987.
“My whole family plays music,” Deacon Ayers said, adding that he plays cornet and guitar.
Their musical repertoire ranged from 19th century parlor style music to folk songs from Stephen Collins Foster to ragtime and early jazz. At one time they played Irish music at the Penny Lane Pub in downtown Richmond.
“We traveled as far as Shreveport, LA, to New York City and I did this from high school for almost 20 years,” Deacon Ayers said.
But he eventually got tired of being on the road and then took a job as a full-time gardener at Monticello for three years.
“The last two years I took charge of the orchard and vineyard,” he said.
He continued to live at home with his parents, two brothers and four sisters,
“While at Monticello, I began discerning for the priesthood,” he said. “It was a year or two after we became Catholic.”
He had become more involved at Our Lady of Lourdes by teaching 9th grade CCD and playing the cornet with the choir. It was something he enjoyed, especially being with “the people of God.”
“I thought ‘maybe this is the life for me in a fuller sense,’” is how he described his feelings at the time.
“But as a new Catholic, I wondered if it might just be a fascination with the priesthood.
“I didn’t tell anyone, I kept it to myself,” Deacon Ayers continued.
“I was and still am an introvert so one of the things that scared me the most was preaching and being in front of people a lot.”
Continuing to hold private thoughts about being a priest, he finally felt motivated to share his feelings with then Deacon Ken Shuping (now Father Shuping, pastor of St. Jude’s, Radford) one Sunday after Mass at Church of the Incarnation in Charlottesville where Father Shuping was serving as a deacon.
“I’m kind of interested in priesthood,” Eric Ayers told then Deacon Shuping. “Can we talk a little about your journey?”
After this private conversation, then Deacon Shuping apparently submitted Eric’s name and address to Father Michael Renninger, then Vicar for Vocations.
“A week later I got a letter from Father Renninger who wrote ‘If you want to talk, I’d be happy to talk to you,’” Deacon Ayers recalls.
But he thought there was an obstacle which might prevent him from immediately entering priestly formation.
“I had no college under my belt,” Deacon Ayers said. “When I realized I wanted to go to seminary, I knew I would need it.” Most new seminarians have at least a bachelor’s degree when they begin priestly formation.
He then enrolled at Piedmont Community College in Charlottesville in the spring semester of 2004 and took additional classes during that summer.
“At that point, Father Renninger encouraged me to apply,” he said, adding that he completed the application process and was accepted. He entered St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore in late August 2004. He had his first summer assignment at St. Bridget Parish in Richmond in 2005.
Other parishes in which he served during his seven years of formation were St. John the Apostle, Virginia Beach, summer of 2006; St. Mary’s, Richmond, summer of 2007; Incarnation, Charlottesville, where he had his 14-month pastoral ministry assignment, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Salem, summer of 2010.
He was ordained a deacon at Incarnation in February 2010.
This past April he preached at the funeral liturgy of his younger sister, Abigail, who died at 29. She had been born with cerebral palsy. The funeral was held at Our Lady of Lourdes with Father Duarte, a former pastor, presiding. Abigail had been cared for at home by the entire family her whole life.
“It was a tough thing to do, but a grace-filled moment to do that for my sister,” Deacon Ayers said.
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