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,
- 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 December 1985.
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 Cemetery, Denver.
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.