Father Demetrius Dumm, OSB

by Melannie Svoboda SND on December 30, 2013

As we prepare to ring in the new year, we may find ourselves thinking about those loved ones who passed away in 2013. I am thinking about a good friend of mine who died on November 17. He was Fr. Demetrius Dumm, a Benedictine monk from St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, PA.

First a little background. Fr. Demetrius was born on October 1, 1923 on a farm near Carrolltown, PA. He grew up with eight siblings and attended a one-room schoolhouse where he completed eight grades in six years. He went to high school and college at St. Vincent’s and entered the Benedictines in 1940 in his sophomore year of college. He made his solemn vows in 1946 and was ordained a priest in 1947. For many years he studied theology and scripture—even in Rome and Jerusalem.

I first met Fr. Demetrius when I began my studies in spirituality at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in the early 80′s. He was my scripture professor. I was fairly young back then (35) and he was 56. (Years later I realized I was baptized on his 21st birthday!) From the very first class, I was intrigued by this man. I noticed first of all that he had a nice build–especially for a 56-year-old man. His hard work in his garden no doubt contributed to his good physique. He also had beautiful blue eyes. And a great sense of humor. But it was his teaching that ultimately won me over.

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Fr. Demetrius teaching (picture is from “Leaven,” the Saint Vincent Seminary newsletter)

Demetrius was a master teacher. Ask anyone who was privileged to have him for class or hear him speak. One of his former students, Brother Benedict Janecko, OSB, said, “None of us ever thought of missing his class.” I resonate with that. I used to sit in his class (and later read his books) and try to figure out why he was so good. One reason was because he read scripture within the context of real life, and he read real life within the context of scripture. He also had a marvelous way of using stories and images to convey profound Biblical truths. Here’s one of my favorites from his book Flowers in the Desert: 

The difficulty of believing we are truly loved was brought home to me when I was on vacation once and my little nephew, Pat, asked me what I was doing as I read my breviary. I told him I was thanking God for sunshine and the rain and eagles and raccoons (knowing these were his favorite animals). Then I added, “…and for Pat.” There was a long period of silence, and finally he said, “Pat who?” Saint Paul is saying that it is the task of the Spirit to convince us interiorly of our loveability, which was just another way of saying that God is good and truly cares.

Here are a few more wise words from Demetrius:

Growing always involves an element of pain, for one cannot go forward without leaving something good behind. And one cannot truly love without the pain of sacrifice. Those who have an unhealthy fear of pain have difficulty making permanent commitments. They want to have the future without giving up any part of the past. (Cherish Christ above All)

Life is about 75% ambiguous–so we’d better get used to living with ambiguity! (My class notes)

Sometimes we can mistake good health for virtue. (My class notes)

 If we live close to Christ, death itself becomes simply the last and best opportunity to trust God. (Cherish Christ above All)

The threat of Goodbye has power to frighten and paralyze us because it appears that, no matter how often we say Hello, it is Goodbye that conquers in the end; it appears that death has the last word. But that is only an appearance. The secret of Jesus and the secret of faith is the sure conviction that death in turn is conquered by life in the victory of the Resurrection. That means that Hello has the last word; it is a resounding Hello that echoes for all eternity! (Flowers in the Desert)

After I graduated from Duquesne I kept in touch with Demetrius. When I became novice director, I used to pack the novices into a van and haul them to Latrobe where Fr. Demetrius would give them a talk or two. He was well worth the three hour drive. Once I invited him to give a few talks to the nuns I lived with in Middleburg, Virginia. On Sunday afternoon the two of us went to a sheep dog herding competition at a nearby farm. We both were utterly mesmerized by those dogs and their handlers. I visited Demetrius a few weeks before he died. By this time he was suffering from dementia and was almost non-communicative. But when I described to him that afternoon of watching those sheep dogs herding those sheep, he responded enthusiastically with a complete sentence: “I really liked those sheep dogs!”

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(picture from the cover of “Leaven.”)

Demetrius and I had many things in common. We were both raised on farms. We were members of religious congregations. We were teachers. We were novice directors. We were writers. Through the years we encouraged each other in all we were doing. He once told me he liked my poetry–especially my poem “Two Sparrows”  in my book Just Because. Little wonder, because the poem has a definite “Demetrian theme”: though the future can be filled with dangers and hardships, we go forward joyfully, knowing that our loving God will be with us no matter what the future may bring.

I will miss Demetrius’ presence in my life. But I know his dedication, his insights, his love for scripture, his openness to life, and his humor continue to influence and inspire me. I dedicated my second poetry book, The Blue Heron, to him. The dedication says simply: to Demetrius Dumm, OSB, my teacher, mentor, friend.

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Demetrius and I at a picnic  in the late 80s.

Is there anything about this reflection resonates with you?

Prayers and best wishes for a Happy New Year to each one of you!

 

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen Magiera December 30, 2013 at 5:38 am

What a beautiful reflection Sr. Melannie. Thanks for sharing about Fr. Demetrius. What really struck me is that “Life is about 75% ambiguous.” I so want every thing in life to be tied up in a neat package with a bow. This year I am learning to let go a little more and listen to the Spirit’s leading. Ambiguity is part of the process.

Happy 2014!

Kathleen

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 31, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Dear Kathleen, I’m glad you liked this reflection on Demetrius. I too struggle with ambiguity at times. Like you, I want closure. But (as you so wisely said) “ambiguity is part of the process.” Thanks for responding! Sr. Melannie

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dion December 30, 2013 at 8:41 am

Melannie,
I didn’t know Demetrius died. My deepest sympathy to you. What a very dear friend. Thank you for this tribute to him. Blessed New Year. I can tell how much he has influenced you in what you write. Yes, hello is eternal. This is the time of my mom’s death too. Died this day in 1990 and buried on january 2, 1991.

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 31, 2013 at 2:19 pm

Thank you, Dion. I’ll say a special prayer for your dear mother. I remember her well. Melannie

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Georgia Auckly December 30, 2013 at 9:17 am

From your class notes, “Sometimes we mistake good health for virtue” struck me as significant. I think many of us tend to feel that way and yet we should realize how many very good people we know with bad health who had nothing to do with causing it.

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 31, 2013 at 2:18 pm

Dear Georgia, What you say is very true. Also, sometimes it’s easy to be virtuous when everything is fine–including our health. But the real test of virtue comes when we begin to experience our frailty and limitations. I think that’s why the smile of a 90-year-old is so precious! Thanks again for writing! Melannie

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Rose December 30, 2013 at 9:20 am

Dear Sr. Melannie,

Thank you for the beautiful reflection and tribute to Fr. Demetrius. I also can tell how much he has influenced your writings; and I am so thankful and grateful for your wonderful meditations.
Peace + Prayers for the New Year.

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 31, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Thank you for your encouragement for my blog, Rose. And many blessings to you during this coming new year! Sr. Melannie

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Barbara Hirn December 30, 2013 at 9:34 am

Thank you for sharing some of Fr. Demetrius’ writings. We so need these voices sharing their insights about growing into new life. He so resonates with me. I’m going to look for his books.

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 31, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Dear Barbara, I’m so glad to hear that Demetrius’ words resonate with you. I hope you have success in finding his books. I think Amazon still carries them. Thanks for writing! Melannie

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Marilyn T. sabatino, S.N.D. December 30, 2013 at 11:12 am

Dear Melannie, Ah yes I do remember Fr. Demetrius……from his comings to the provincial center….and to loved his teaching and homilies….what a treasure you have in his friendship….yes have!
for love continues through time and space….faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love!!!!!!blessed New year and blessings on our anniversary of vows…love, Marilyn

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 31, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Dear Marilyn, Yes, Demetrius gave talks at our provincial center many years ago. I still listen to the tapes. There’s a timeless quality about them…Blessings on your New Year—and our 49th anniversary of vows on January 2! (Yikes! Where did the time go?!) Melannie

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Fran December 30, 2013 at 11:27 am

By your loving tribute to Fr. Demetrius some of us now know a bit of what was surely an amazing man. Thank you for sharing him with all of us. His comments on the fear of moving forward & making of commitments struck very true to me.

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 31, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Thank you for your response, Fran. Yes, Demetrius was amazing–in a humble way. I too appreciate his words about moving forward and making commitments. Happy New Year! Melannie

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Pat December 30, 2013 at 12:10 pm

Thank you, Sr. Melannie, for providing a wonderful reflection today! I believe my brother took a class/es from Fr. Demetrius while in the seminary at St. Vincent’s in the ’60′s. Fr. Nick gave us his book, Flowers in the Desert. I plan to find it on our shelf & read it again. We will pray for him. My husband & I spent this past Saturday with the Benedictine Sisters at St. Emma’s Monastery in Greensburg, PA for their Visit & Vespers Christmas Celebration. May your 2014 be filled with God’s Blessings! Love, Pat

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 31, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Dear Pat, Your brother probably did have Fr. Demetrius at St. Vincent. He taught there for decades. I also recall that those Benedictine Sisters used to serve at St. Vincent’s…I hope you find Demetrius’s book…Thanks for writing! Sr. Melannie

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Suzanne Sayer December 30, 2013 at 12:27 pm

A wonderful tribute to your mentor and friend. He obviously had great insight into life. Wishing you a blessed and hapoy new year.

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 31, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Yes, Suzanne, he did have great insight into life! Blessings on your New Year too! Melannie

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Suzanne Sayer December 30, 2013 at 12:28 pm

I need to proofread more quickly–happy new year!

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Tom December 30, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Melannie,
Thanks for today’s reflection. It reminded me to be grateful for those who passed from my life during this year, including 15 of my fellow priests. I was also reminded of your dear parents and my good buddy, your brother, John. Blessings for the new year.
Tom

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 31, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Dear Tom, I didn’t realize that 15 priests died in the diocese this past year. I’m sure you knew some of them well. My sympathy. And thanks for remembering my parents and brother. You were a good pastor to them! Melannie

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Maryann December 31, 2013 at 11:34 am

What a beautiful tribute to an inspiring teacher. “…one cannot go forward without leaving something good behind…” That’s the part that resonates most with me. So true of past transitions in life, and of one likely approaching. Thanks, Sr. Melannie, and Happy New Year!

Maryann

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 31, 2013 at 2:05 pm

And thank you, Maryann, for sharing what part resonated with you! Melannie

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Beverly Palumbo,RSM January 4, 2014 at 1:37 pm

Happy and peace this New Year…I copied this for one of our Very Senior Sisters who was a personal friend of Father Dumm And over the years
Had him here to speak at Merion…what a holy man and Suzanne was over joyed with your reflections…she was unable to participate in his funeral…so Thanks so much.

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 4, 2014 at 9:14 pm

Dear Beverly, I’m so happy you were able to share my blog on Demetrius with another good friend of his, Suzanne. Please give her best wishes from me. And Happy New Year to you too! Melannie

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Theresa January 10, 2014 at 9:44 am

Hi Melannie, thank you for the touching reflection on the life of Fr. Demetrius. I first met him in November of 2012 when I started working in the kitchen at SVC monastery infirmary. We became friends and enjoyed a cup of tea combined with scripture talk on many afternoon breaks. I have read all 5 of his books. Despite the dementia , he never lost his ability to teach. I was so fortunate to be one of his last students. As with others , he left a mark on my heart. Something happened to me on the day he passed that I can only describe as miraculous. I would like to share it with you sometime.

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 10, 2014 at 11:33 am

Dear Theresa, What a beautiful tribute you’ve given to Fr. Demetrius as someone who got to know him in his final year or so. How nice to hear “He never lost his ability to teach.” I sense you were an eager student. I’ll be in touch with you personally to hear your story about the day he died. Thank you, Theresa, for writing! Melannie

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