With his long hair pulled back in a ponytail and his chiseled, careworn face, Louis Nash was a man people took notice of but often passed by.
Like many veterans, Lou carried with him a heavy load of emotions from his time serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam, haunted by memories of holding his buddy in his arms as he died. And sometimes those feelings exploded out of him, making it hard for people to get to know him.
Before passing away in October 2021, one place Lou felt safe and welcome was at Mass. For at least a dozen years, he frequented St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud, specifically the daily morning Mass. There he encountered all kinds of people, including Carol Mueller. Although Carol is a parishioner of Sacred Heart in Sauk Rapids, she enjoys going to different parishes for daily Mass. That’s how she met Lou.
“I often hold the door open for people as they are leaving just because I love to chat and Louis always had a smile and a hello for me. He was always kind and positive,” she said.
Over the years, Carol and Lou grew closer, and he shared bits of his life with her and, in turn, he would sit and listen when others needed someone to talk to.
“He definitely had his struggles, but I could see his goodness in the way he looked out for others,” Carol said.
Lou faced a lot of challenges in his life. He lost contact with much of his family, and he suffered from health concerns, financial setbacks and a stint with homelessness. Through it all, attending Mass, receiving the Eucharist and the support he found in his community was the glue that held him together, according to Mary Jo LeGare-Hoffman.
Mary Jo, also a daily Mass-goer, knew Lou for more than a decade.
“We often sat in the same pew — me on one end, him on the other. And eventually, he got to know my husband, Peter, as well. There was just kind of this connection. He seemed to trust us,” Mary Jo said.
About two years ago, Lou’s health issues began to mount. As a 25-year parish nurse, Mary Jo took notice. Also a former VA nurse for 34 years, Mary Jo knew the health care system and recognized that Lou needed someone to advocate for him.
“He was pretty much totally vision-impaired and in need of cataract surgery. He was willing to talk to me and he trusted me. It started with some phone calls, and I finally got him to agree to let myself and my husband take him to the VA hospital.”
It wasn’t an easy path getting Lou the physical and spiritual help he needed.
“Lou had a lot of anger and that didn’t always go over well. Most people looked at him and sadly just thought he was this angry, disgruntled veteran, and he did appear to be that way. But underneath, there was something very beautiful and gentle.”
With Mary Jo helping navigate the health care system, Lou eventually received the much-needed cataract surgery in January 2021, and he was able to secure a place to heal at an assisted living and memory care facility.
“It was such a grace for him to be able to see again, to be able to read his Bible. It made a tremendous difference in his state of mind. But he was still very angry that he was not allowed to go back home and he didn’t understand it,” Mary Jo said.
Mary Jo’s visits became a source of comfort and joy for Lou. The center of their visits was the Eucharist. Mary Jo brought Communion and they prayed together.
“Lou had a devotion to our Blessed Mother and the rosary was very important to him. To help him get settled into that space, I brought him a cross and made sure he had his rosary and holy water and things like that. I wanted to make it a space that was comforting to him.”
During that time, Mary Jo adopted a new ministry puppy named LuLu Bella.
“Lou thought that was so cool. He would joke that I named her after him. I really didn’t, and he knew that, but he just loved telling people that. She loved him and he loved her. She was really good medicine for him, and it opened up some more doors for him to start sharing some things that were deep wounds from his childhood, from his experience in the service. The flood gates opened up. Layer after layer after layer, it just kept peeling away, and he kept letting go and forgiving,” she said.
Sadly, during his recovery, Lou learned that he had end-stage lung and heart disease, and he was placed into hospice care last July.
As Lou’s health continued to fade, Father Scott Pogatchnik, pastor of St. Mary’s, St. Augustine’s and St. John Cantius, came to visit him.
“He anointed him and we had a lovely visit outside. That was a sacred time. Lou was given the grace to share with Father Scott his experience of his comrade who died in his arms. It was very healing for him,” Mary Jo said.
On Oct. 27, 2021, shortly after Father Scott’s visit, Mary Jo visited Lou with LuLu Bella and she knew it was the last time they’d see him in this world. She wanted him to receive Communion one last time — spiritual food for his journey home to heaven — but he was unresponsive.
Then LuLu hopped up onto the bed with Lou.
“All of a sudden, Lou opened his eyes and reached out his hand. She just laid her little head right there in his hand.”
Mary Jo knew the end was near and she lovingly washed Lou’s face and hair.
“He woke up a bit and let me do all those things. I said, ‘Lou, I brought Jesus for you.’ He wasn’t able to really pray that well with me but he was present and received Communion and drank a little water. It was his last sacred meal. And he died that same day.”
Mary Jo was instrumental in helping plan a memorial Mass for Lou at St. Mary’s and also attended his burial at Camp Ripley in Little Falls.
“It was a beautiful liturgy and memorial Mass. It’s the love that every soul deserves. For this man, it was even more poignant and beautiful because he had struggled and suffered so much. I think a lot of people probably passed him by in his life. I’m glad he found a safe place. And that’s what it’s all about — leading others to Jesus, just as our Blessed Mother is always leading us closer and closer to Jesus.”
Among the attendees at the Mass was Carol Mueller, who knew Lou only through their shared love of the Eucharist.
“Louis really touched my life. The memorial Mass prayed for him was so beautiful. Father Scott [Pogatchnik] really captured the beauty and dignity of Lou’s life. The love and respect that every life deserves,” she said.
After reading from the Gospel which proclaimed, “Come to me all you who are labored and burdened and I will give you rest,” Father Scott shared a touching homily and reflection.
Calling him a bit of a St. John the Baptist figure with his long hair and weathered face, Father Scott said in his homily that Lou’s “deep piercing blue eyes could look right through you.”
“War marked so many people that we know and love, and certainly marked Louis … who had experiences that one would never wish to encounter. It was certainly one of the burdens Louis had to carry,” he said.
“This [community] is a true spiritual family and we pray for one another. We have to ask for the grace to care for one another, because we are not always easy to love.” — Father Scott Pogatchnik
“And we all carry burdens. … No one gets through life without some kind of suffering. … [Will we] struggle to overcome our wounds by ourselves or are we willing to open ourselves to those God puts in our life to understand what the yoke of Christ feels like? It’s not a solitary yoke,” he said.
Father Scott said the community that rallied around Louis helped him bear his earthly yoke and gave him a “spiritual family.”
“Louis had his own family, kids and grandkids, but he really also became part of this family. Over the years, I’ve had a chance to see many of our community members become good friends with Lou. As they cared for him, that hardened Marine heart began to soften in many ways. It was beautiful to witness,” he said.
“This [community] is a true spiritual family and we pray for one another. We have to ask for the grace to care for one another, because we are not always easy to love. … Jesus Christ is the one that gathers us. It’s his yoke we bear. … He is the one that walks with us. He is the one that possesses our hearts. He is the one Lou turned to in so many moments of trial and moments of healing and now we trust in that embrace that Christ promised to Lou that he enjoys now.”
Mary Jo feels blessed to have walked alongside Lou, who became a witness to her and to others through his dedication to the Eucharist, like so many others in her “spiritual family.” She said she has more friends in heaven than on earth, including her own daughter, Lauren Elizabeth, who died just before her fifth birthday in 1995. She feels that in some ways, God prepared her for this sacred path.
“God has given me the gift of tears,” she said. “They have helped me to endure the trial and sorrows of my life’s journey. But it’s not about me. It is about bringing Jesus to Lou and wanting Jesus to heal him of all those deep wounds that he lived with and struggled with for so long. I just wanted him to be at peace and to be as whole as he could be instead of so broken. But it isn’t easy. It gets kind of nitty-gritty sometimes.
“It’s what we are all called to do, to enter into the journey,” Mary Jo said. “That’s called compassion. Not just empathy. It means to ‘suffer with.’ And trust me, I’ve suffered with not just Lou, but hundreds of others. It’s hard work journeying with someone who is processing so much and then, on top of that, going through the process of preparing to die. Each time, I think, how many more times can I do this? But then the grace comes to do it again. It is a gift, a beautiful gift.”