Father Dempsey answers call to return to Venezuela

| June 19, 2019 | 0 Comments

Father Dennis Dempsey, pastor of St. Dominic in Northfield, delivers the homily during Mass at the church June 3, 2018. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

When he was a young college graduate, Father Dennis Dempsey and a friend biked to the East Coast, even though he had never biked longer than 50 miles in a day before.

His adventures grew, with bike trips to Canada and Alaska in addition to canoeing and kayaking trips in Minnesota. The bike trips expanded to South America when he served in the Venezuelan mission of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis from 1994 to 1999. He bicycled in the Andes Mountains, Brazil and the Caribbean.
“Neither one of us even owned a bike or had been on any long trips before, so we decided (to do it) and that’s what we did,” said Father Dempsey, 70, pastor of St. Dominic in Northfield.

He hopes to buy back the bike he used, which he sold to a longtime friend in the mission, when he returns to Venezuela in July after 15 years at St. Dominic. Father Dempsey will serve as an associate pastor of the mission parish, Jesucristo Resucitado in San Felix.

“The main thing is the people we meet along the way,” Father Dempsey said of the bike trips. “No matter what problems that happened — and a number of things happened — I would just trust that God is somehow going to come through.”

“And that’s what gives me a great sense for Venezuela as well,” he added. “I just have this confidence that no matter what, I don’t have to be afraid of it because if I sense it’s God’s will, then God’s going to take care of it somehow.”

It doesn’t faze him that Venezuelans face much more intense economic and social difficulties today than they did in the late 1990s. Poverty and crime have been issues for decades in the country, but both have escalated in the wake of a political battle that began in January between President Nicolas Maduro and Juan Guaido, who also claims the presidency.

At Jesucristo Resucitado, Father Dempsey will focus on outreach and pastoral ministry for parishioners in the “barrios,” or neighborhoods. He will hold Bible studies, celebrate Mass, provide catechesis and visit people. He said he sees it as a ministry of presence.

Father Dempsey will also work with the pastor of Jesucristo Resucitado, Father Greg Schaffer. They worked together in Venezuela when Father Schaffer served as an associate pastor of the parish and Father Dempsey was pastor.

Father Schaffer continued to serve in the mission when Archbishop Harry Flynn called Father Dempsey back to Minnesota in 1999. Since then, Father Schaffer has started programs to meet the various needs of the parish, such as a soup kitchen and small medical clinic. The latest project is a hospice for the elderly.

“He’s developed some amazing programming,” Father Dempsey said.

Father Schaffer had an associate priest, Father James Peterson, working with him for three years until last year, when Father Peterson returned to the Twin Cities to serve as pastor of Immaculate Conception in Columbia Heights. Father Dempsey will help Father Schaffer meet pastoral needs as Father Schaffer concentrates on administrative duties for the mission and his work as vicar general of the Diocese of Ciudad Guayana.

“What he doesn’t get enough time for, (which) he would like, is being out with the people and taking care of people on a pastoral level,” said Father Dempsey, who will have minimal administrative duties.

St. Dominic parishioners see Father Dempsey often ministering to people in the Northfield community, usually using a bike as transportation. He visits neighborhoods, Northfield’s two colleges and the senior care centers.

“It is like losing a family member,” Rick Nelson, parish outreach minister, said of Father Dempsey’s planned departure. “I certainly think he is going to be a positive influence on that parish down there.”

Dario Payes, president of the parish’s Latino committee, said Father Dempsey, who is fluent in Spanish, helped that community thrive at St. Dominic. Father Dempsey relates to everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, he said.

“Father Denny is a very excellent priest for a Spanish community,” Payes said.

Roxzanne Devney, a lifelong parishioner, said Father Dempsey brought many gifts to the parish and was present to the community. She wasn’t surprised that he wanted to return to Venezuela.

“He would talk about it frequently,” Devney said. “He feels really called to go there.”

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