Dempsey, Michael James
1912 to 1996
Catholic Church (Dominican)
James Edward Dempsey was born in Providence, Rhode Island, February
22, 1912, the son of Joseph M. Demspey and Julia Mary McSherry. He attended
St. Mary's Grammar School, LaSalle Academy and Providence College in
Providence, Rhode Island. In August 1935, he entered the Dominican novitiate
at St. Rose of Lima Priory, Springfield, Kentucky, receiving the religious
name of Michael, and made his first profession there on August 16, 1936. From
1936 to 1939 he pursued philosophical studies at the Dominican House of
Studies, River Forest, Illinois, and made his solemn profession on August 16,
1939. He elected to join the new Province of St. Albert the Great and so
continued his theological studies at the Dominican House of Studies in River
Forest, where he was ordained by Bishop Bernard J. Sheil on June 11, 1942.
Having completed his basic studies, Father Dempsey was assigned to Fenwick
High School, Oak Park, Illinois, where he taught English and religion from
1943 to 1950. During this time he also attended DePaul University, Chicago,
Illinois, and obtained a master's degree in English literature. In 1951 Father
Dempsey was asked to undertake foreign mission work in Nigeria. He was among
the first three pioneer friars, arriving on 27 February 1951. From 1951 to
1965 he served five terms as pastor and local superior of St. Dominic's
Parish, Yaba, Lagos State. On leave from 24 Jan 1955 to 2 Feb 1956, he was
also made Vicar Provincial for the whole of Nigeria on 23 Sept 1957. After 18
October 1959 his responsibility was for Yaba alone, subject to the provincial
directly, until 30 June 1962 when Yaba became part of the Nigerian Vicarate
headed by Victor Nadeau. On 27 August 1965 Fr. Dempsey was appointed vicar,
and moved to Gusau in early November.
The anti-Igbo, anti-Christian riots of 1966 left the diocese of Sokoto
empty of most of its Christians; its only indigenous priest fled, many church
buildings were in shambles, and in December Bishop Lawton died of a heart
attack. On July 13, 1967, Michael Dempsey was appointed bishop. On August 15,
1967 he was ordained at St. Pius V Church, Chicago, Illinois, by Cardinal John
P. Cody, archbishop of Chicago, assisted by Archbishop John Aggey of Lagos,
Nigeria, and Bishop Aloysius Wycislo, auxiliary bishop of Chicago. He was
formally installed as ordinary of the diocese on October 1, 1967, and returned
to Nigeria on 27 Sept.
Bishop Dempsey turned his attention to the northern Christians who remained
and was not afraid to open the first secondary school in Gusau in 1968. The
civil war ended in January 1970 and in the aftermath Christians from around
the country began to flood Sokoto diocese. The 70s were the years of the oil
boom and the church, the economy and the society began to bound back.
Bishop Dempsey directed most of this operation from the quiet of his office
in Sokoto, where he nourished the contemplative aspect of Dominican life with
the full celebration of the Office in church and by keeping abreast with
theology, reading particularly the Osservatore Romano and The
Tablet. He firmly believed and impressed on all that the success of our
apostolate depended on faithfulness to Dominican prayer life and study.
Although he appeared to be shy and was very careful in his dealings with
the govenment, Bishop Dempsey regularly toured his diocese and visited the
most remote outstations. He pushed himself to learn enough Hausa to say the
Mass and greet people on his visitations.
He was also an excellent preacher, and non-Catholics used to come to the
Catholic church just to hear him. He was well prepared for any bishops'
meeting. His file of notes helped him in this and also in the many preaching
engagements he had throughout the country. He would often quote Karl Rahner, saying
that a bishop's obligation to collegiality and the needs of the Church as a
whole was more important than the particular needs of his own diocese. He
stressed the need to work in common projects and not selfishly contain oneself
to the local church.
Under Bishop Dempsey Sokoto Diocese was built up far beyond what it was
before the 1966 riots. Young men were sent to the seminary and ordained. The
Dominican sisters began a flourishing Nigerian congregation based in Gusau.
The catechetical school at Malumfashi turned out trained catechists for the
whole of the north of Nigeria. The evangelization of indigenous Hausa people
proceeded at a wildfire pace. Efforts were made, with considerable success,
to have good relations with Muslims and ecumenical cooperation with other
Christian churches. Bishop Dempsey used to round off his brilliant apostolate
by cleaning toilet bowls for the brethren.
In his later years he suffered several minor strokes and had other health
problems. He also felt the handicap of being the only "alien"
(non-Commonwealth) bishop in Nigeria. He even had to check in and out with the
police when he went out of Sokoto province to enter Katsina province, part of
his diocese. These factors he presented when he submitted his resignation to
Pope John Paul II on 8 May 1984. His resignation was formally accepted on 31
Bishop Dempsey returned to the United States in the fall of 1985 and,
exercising his privilege of choosing a house of the Order in which to reside,
after a short stay in River Forest, took up residence at St. Dominic Priory,
Denver, Colorado, where he spent the last years of his life. There he was
active in assisting at St. Dominic Parish, especially in ministry to the sick
and aged. Declining health necessitated his move to Mullen Home in Denver, a
care facility sponsored by the Little Sisters of the Poor. There he died on
the morning of March 19, 1996. A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated by
Archbishop J. Francis Stafford of Denver at St. Dominic's church on March 25,
1996, and Bishop Dempsey was buried in the Dominican plot at Mt. Olivet
This article was originally published on the "Lives of Deceased Brothers" page on the Web site of the Dominican Friars Province of St. Joseph the Worker (Nigeria and Ghana).
This article is reproduced, with permission, the original article from the "Lives of Deceased Brothers" page on the Web site of Dominican Friars Province of St. Joseph the Worker (Nigeria and Ghana). All rights reserved.