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Deacon Ernie Martinez: From veteran Denver cop to Director of Deacons

2024 marks the 50th Jubilee of the Permanent Diaconate here in the Archdiocese of Denver. Through preaching, service, worship and prayer, deacons serve the people of God in unique ways through their various ministries and lives. This article is one of a series of articles the Denver Catholic will publish in 2024 which will feature local deacons and/or a diaconal ministry. There are many Deacon Saints who were martyred for their faith. In this year of Jubilee, the deacons of the Archdiocese of Denver are asking for prayers through the intercession of Saint Euplius of Cantania, deacon and martyr. Learn more about this Deacon Saint here.

Deacon Ernie Martinez has seen some stuff. But you’d never guess when talking to him that he’s spent the last 40 years as a hardened cop on the streets of Denver chasing down criminals, drug dealers and the like.

As the Archdiocese of Denver’s director of deacon personnel, a post he’s been in since January 2022, Deacon Martinez is entrusted with the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of the hundreds of permanent deacons who serve in parishes and ministries around the archdiocese. Ordained a permanent deacon in 2017, Deacon Martinez recently retired from a long and illustrious career as a Denver police officer. While the titles of “cop” and “deacon” may appear diametrically opposed on the surface, he’s learned lasting lessons — and more importantly, received abundant graces — from each role that has helped him in the other.

“I’ve had, thanks to God, a lot of blessings in my life to be able to have some type of little influence in this corner of our world and in this community and even be blessed, especially since the day of formation, to change that paradigm to really look at everybody else, even the criminals, the people that you would look at as being broken…How do I say this? When you have somebody who shoots at you, threatens you or others, if the situation didn’t further escalate to deem deadly force, the first thing you want to do is retaliate and put them in handcuffs and call them every name in the book,” Deacon Martinez told the Denver Catholic. “But God calling me to the diaconal ordination and formation really opened me up and my heart up to say they’re a child of God, just like I am, just like my brothers in class or just like my family is. And it tempers that and really brings the true meaning of being a human and understanding that despite what happens in one’s life to make them commit the horrendous crimes against people they commit, there’s still a chance.”

Deacon Martinez observes city camera footage in the HALO control center at the Denver Police Department. (Photo provided)

He turns and points to the crucifix hanging on the wall behind him. “He tells us, when he’s hanging on the cross, [with] that so-called good thief, it’s never too late for salvation. So we pray. And that has been something that’s stood with me for a number of years now.”

Deacon Martinez grew up in North Denver via East Denver, and it was in that environment that he felt the pull to become a police officer. During the 60s and 70s, Denver was not exactly a peaceful place. Race riots, drugs, bombings and violence plagued the streets of Denver, and amid all of that, Deacon Martinez sought to make a difference.

“Growing up around that craziness, you really saw what’s broken in society and I wanted to be part of the solution,” he recalled. “That’s one of the reasons why I became not only a cop, but I wanted to be an undercover narc, I wanted to work in the trenches. I wanted to go after those people with evil intent who were poisoning the streets and getting people hooked on drugs. I did that for the majority of my career, in specialized units then as a Detective-Sergeant and Commander. I did undercover work and it was an awesome, fun, exciting, crazy, dangerous job. But I loved it.

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“You look back at all the times I could have been killed on duty taking chances that I probably should not have taken to get that arrest or to chase this guy down,” he continued. “I took a lot of pride in being fast and catching guys who ran away from me. I’ve never lost One. But, man, God was with me, and the Holy Spirit. My guardian angel was protecting me. It’s through the grace of God that I survived all this craziness.”

Deacon Martinez (second from left) with some of his nephews who followed him into law enforcement. (Photo provided)

While Deacon Martinez was raised Catholic, his faith wasn’t always as central to his life as it is now. He credits the graces of his parents raising him in the faith and those other graces that were unbeknownst to him for keeping on the right path in his life: “I was an altar boy, but I wasn’t living out being an altar boy in life as a high schooler. I could have definitely went the other way, as some of my friends did, but I didn’t because of my upbringing and the graces of God that kept me on the straight and narrow for the most part.”

Deacon Martinez played football in college, where he met his wife. They got married outside of the Church and started a family. Suffice it to say that being a deacon, let alone the deacon in charge of all the other deacons in the archdiocese, was never on his radar. It was during a harrowing trial that began in 2011 that God planted the seeds of the diaconate in Deacon Martinez’s heart.

“13 years ago, in November of 2011, my wife was suddenly diagnosed with an extremely rare form of leukemia,” he said. “She had a 5% chance of survival.” It marked the beginning of a long and difficult road of chemo treatments, medications, total body radiation, bone marrow transplants and extended hospital stays. The experience was also a spiritual awakening for Deacon Martinez, though for a time it was more akin to a spiritual wresting match between him and God.

“I said, God, please give me the cancer,” Deacon Martinez recalled. “That was my first intercessory prayers, praying to Saint Peregrine, and also I prayed to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. for some reason, Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal just came into my heart, through St. Catherine Laboure’s intercession.”

Meanwhile, treatments for his wife became more and more intense. She started to lose her hair and the doctors began making calls all over the country to figure out the best course of action to treat the leukemia. ”So I get into I get into another prayer session with God: I said, OK God, you’re obviously not going to give me the cancer, so take it away from my wife. Please save her life and show me how to be a better man, show me how to serve you. And I prayed for that constantly,” Deacon Martinez said.

Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila and Ernie Martinez exchange the Kiss of Peace during the Mass of Holy Orders Ordination of Deacons at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on June 17, 2017, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Around this time, Deacon Martinez stumbled across an advertisement in the then-Denver Catholic Register for a diaconate discernment retreat.

“I look at this little ad and it says, ‘Come and see, retreat for diaconal discernment.’ And I look at it, I look at it again,” Deacon Martinez recalled. “It didn’t occur to me that God’s trying to tell me something as I’m looking at it, but it was stirring my heart for some reason. And I would never, because I’m a big broken man, I’m a sinner like everybody is. There’s no way I could do it. I’m not worthy. So I share that with my wife, and she goes, ‘It’s kind of interesting. Maybe you should go. Maybe it’s God talking to you.'”

After sitting with it a little more, and under the counsel of his parish priest and his wife, who was still sick at the time, he went through the application process. To his surprise, he got accepted. So began Deacon Ernie’s road to the permanent diaconate, which was filled with many blessings along the way — including the blessing of being humbled by God.

“God brought me to my knees in all humility,” he said. “He really did. I had a lot of pride before because I was good at what I did. I was prideful, and because of what occurred with the blessing of my wife getting a 5% chance of surviving this crazy disease, where the mortality rate is skyrocketing. More people died in those cancer wards in both hospitals that we experienced than lived and survived. So why does he spare my wife? The fruit of that is still unraveling for us, and of me being able to be humbled enough to accept a total surrender to God, to guide my life and my life as a father, now as a grandfather, when we have seven grandkids, where we didn’t have any before this. We have the fruit of that love. The fruit of our marriage is so much stronger than it ever has been and in a more God-filled way. That’s why I’m a deacon today. And I’m still asking God to help me love him more, because there’s more.”

Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila (C) poses for a photograph with Deacon Ernie Martinez and his family following the Mass of Holy Orders Ordination of Deacons at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on June 17, 2017, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Deacon Martinez’s wife made a miraculous recovery and is better today than she ever was. Now, the Lord has called him to serve as the Director of Deacon Personnel for the archdiocese, a title he does not take lightly. It now falls to him to ensure the spiritual wellbeing of all the permanent deacons in the archdiocese and support them however they need so they can best fulfill their diaconal ministry. And though he still feels unqualified for such an undertaking, he’s simply asking God to help him love him more.

“I just trust that the Holy Spirit led them to see that there’s something that I possess that could truly help the 200-plus deacons that we have in this archdiocese, to not only equip them, to support them and to love them, but for them to truly be the servants of God that they are in their communities,” Deacon Ernie said. “Especially what I want deacons to understand is to be bold and preach the gospel, especially in the brokenness of our state and in this archdiocese. It’s time to be those missionary disciples with the grace of ordination.”

Aaron Lambert
Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the former Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.

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