Sister Jeremy Dempsey, OSB
August 16, 1925 – March 15, 2020
Sister Jeremy Dempsey, OSB, 94, a Benedictine sister of Mount St. Scholastica, Atchison, Kans., died Sunday, March 15, 2020, at the monastery. Funeral services are pending to be held at a later date.
Sister Jeremy was born August 16, 1925, the daughter of Joseph and Hanna O’Connor Dempsey of Blaine, Kansas. After entering the monastery in 1949, she taught in high schools in Iowa, Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska. With a master’s degree in English from Creighton University, she served as an English instructor at Donnelly College, Kansas City, Kans., and Benedictine College, Atchison, Kans. After retiring from teaching, she assisted in the monastery’s development office and other services. She lived her religious commitment for more than 70 years and remained a prayerful and active part of her community’s life until her death.
Sister Jeremy was preceded in death by her parents and by her sister, Marjorie Fast, and is survived by nieces and nephews and her monastic family. Becker-Dyer-Stanton Funeral Home (beckerdyer.com) is in charge of arrangements. Memorials may be sent to Mount St. Scholastica or made online at the Mount’s web site (www.mountosb.org).
Reflection for the Vigil of S. Jeremy Dempsey, OSB
By Sister Jennifer Halling, OSB
On behalf of the Mount community, I’d like to extend our love and condolences across the miles to Sr. Jeremy’s family—her nephew, Joe, his wife, Jan, and their children, Erin, David, and Jeremy; and her niece, Susan, and Susan’s husband, Bob. Sr. Jeremy delighted in you and was so proud of you, and we know that you cherished her and miss her keenly, as do we.
The Benedictine poet Ralph Wright included the following poem in his book Life is Simpler Toward Evening:
When / God / made / you / there / was / silence / in / heaven / for / five / minutes. / Then God said: / How come I never thought of that before?
This poem applies to each one of us, of course, but especially to Jeremy, who was so uniquely unique. Victor Hugo said, “To love another person is to see the face of God,” and the face of God we saw through Jeremy was one of a master of observation as expressed through a dry and droll Irish wit, a delight in the humanness of people, and gratitude for all the gifts of life.
Jeremy’s gift of observation and talent for listening were fostered in her beloved home town of Blaine, Kansas, which was founded by a colony of Irish immigrants. The main entertainment in Blaine was people watching, and by living among farming families and the proprietors of Joe’s Café, Gus’s Place, and the lumber yard, Jeremy learned the value of honesty, kindness, perseverance, simplicity, and patience. Surely this is where she learned how to follow St. Paul’s advice to “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another.” As Jeremy said herself in a gratitude talk she gave to the community,
“I am grateful to the be daughter of a people who were gentle and generous, humbled by the circumstances of their lives, moored to the soil of eastern Kansas by a seemingly unwavering faith, with a respect for the land and its people. For having been shown how to look at life through the prism of humor.”
Jeremy was educated by Benedictines from Atchison from grade school through college, and thus she learned from an early age to “incline the ear of your heart” and, as it says in Proverbs, to “turn your ear to wisdom.” After college she spent a year working in Kansas City in the business office of the Singer Sewing company; this experience gave her insight into the lives of young people seeking to make their way in the world and the struggles of those who work hard to support themselves and their families. Thus in later years she was able to lend a sympathetic ear to her students, her colleagues, and the staff at Dooley Center.
Jeremy told me several times that she was too selfish to make all the sacrifices necessary to marry and raise a family. This seems rather ironic, given the many sacrifices she made to serve the community and her students over the years. Nonetheless, she made the decision to join the Mount in 1949 and never regretted it. As she said in her gratitude talk,
“I am grateful I said, ‘All right, yes. If you insist,’ so many years ago for life, living in the School of the Lord’s service here at the Mount, for all the gifts, opportunities spiritual and cultural, for giving a purpose and structure for my life, for all your help along the way.”
Jeremy taught at a number of different elementary and high schools in Iowa, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, and Missouri, and her seven years at Antonito High School in the mountain valley near the Sangre de Christe range of the Colorado Rockies made a deep impression on her. Surprisingly for a woman so connected to the plains of Kansas, she fell in love with the mountains, and she was touched by the poverty and the devotion of her students.
After attending graduate school at Creighton in Omaha for a number of summers, Jeremy earned a master’s in English with a history minor in 1966, and in 1967 she made the switch to teaching at the college level. She was at Mount St. Scholastica College from 1967 to 1969 and at Donnelly College from 1970 to 1974. In 1976, she “visited the bogs of her ancestors” in Ireland and spent time in England with her dear friend Sr. Scholastica Schuster; it was a trip she cherished, as she often recalled how posh they thought they looked in their pantsuits and how kind people were when they got on the wrong bus.
Jeremy joined the English faculty at Benedictine College in 1974, where she taught primarily English composition, World Literature II, and creative writing and was the faculty adviser to the Loomings literary magazine staff for 14 years. At a BC Faculty Workshop, she shared some of her thoughts about teaching:
“Teaching is a sacred task…an awesome responsibility. For it is our duty to foster thinking so that students may search for the Truth. We must try to make the students feel (or perhaps know) they are more intelligent than they thought they were, better humans than they think they are, more important in the affairs of the small and great world than they thought themselves capable of being. We must assure them what they have to say is worth saying and worth listening to, be generous with compliments, laugh with them, and accept them as they are. Perhaps we can encourage the students to think and to pursue Truth if we can radiate a largeness of spirit, for we must admit that they remember what we are, our loyalty, our kindness, our fairness, our values, our mannerisms, long after they have forgotten the facts we thought so important for them to know.”
Although Jeremy was self-deprecating about her teaching abilities, living as she did in the shadow of the Schuster sisters, she did indeed impart a largeness of spirit to her students, and they loved her for it. As Pete Smith wrote to her upon her retirement, “Thank you so much for all you did for me while I was a student at Benedictine. Your teaching was superb, your kindness was so very much appreciated, and I will never forget your warm smile. It made some tough days a whole lot easier for a 19-year-old kid a long way from home.” Another student, Heidi Montgomery, wrote, “I had hoped to give back / a portion / of what you gave me. / Instead, / I stand here / shame-faced, / empty-handed, / and typically tardy / with nothing / to offer / but / a heart / filled with gratitude / and love.” Gary Bouchard wrote a poem called A Lady Like Her Watch that is a wonderful tribute to Jeremy’s spirit:
She likes the old fashioned watch
The digital ones she says
Tend to click
I like to watch the hands go round,
Because then, gazing at the glass
I always have all of today,
And even yesterday,
If I so desire it.
Something awfully cold I’ll confess
In those glowing changing numbers
And once that minute clicks, it is gone
For another brief set, then it too is not.
Not for her.
She likes that passive roundness
With which the hands signal eternity
Where 4:36 is less precise
Not so coldly banished
and 4:37 is not so indifferent.
No battery either in the old one.
If you don’t care to wind it,
Then even the circular timeless time
will stand . . . still.
Like the watch her wrist displays
She takes things with open hands,
Despite the scratches on the crystal
She’s a little yesterday,
And every bit today.
She is no digital lady.
Jeremy’s students were also drawn to her because she listened to them and offered perspective, rooted as she was in the land and the Word. When she retired, I wrote the following poem for her:
How happy I am
that I was ready
for you to be my teacher;
For you have the brown contours
of the Kansas soil
tucked into your soul –
And when in worldly confusion
I pour out to you
all that I am not
You point instead
to the quietness and strength
of the land
And the word that comes
and being true to oneself;
word made flesh
Jeremy loved scripture and poetry and was a voracious reader, constantly writing down titles of books she wanted to read on the backs of envelopes and other scraps of paper. In addition, she was a gifted writer herself of both prose and poetry. In 1999 her essay about Mary and Martha of Bethany was published in Sisters Today. As is typical, Jeremy advocates for the person whose work seems to be overlooked or unappreciated. People often believe this story is saying that listening to the Word of God is more important than serving others, but as a Mediterranean Jew, Jesus understood the importance of meeting God by offering hospitality. He is merely pointing out that listening to the Word is also important. Jeremy cleverly notes that Jesus says Mary chose the better part, which must mean that Martha chose the best part.
Jeremy both contemplated the word through prayer and writing and served others through her teaching, committee work, routine monastic duties, and stints as maintenance secretary and development office assistant after she retired from the college in 1990. In 2008 her hip broke and she moved to Dooley Center, where she continued her ministry of compassionate listening, this time to the staff who cared for her. She knew the stories of all the nurses, aides, and housekeepers—their struggles, how their children were doing, their hopes—and she often expressed amazement at their strength and resiliency.
No account of Sr. Jeremy’s life would be complete without a mention of her love of sports, particularly football, but also baseball and basketball. She died just as the COVID-19 pandemic was shutting down professional sports, and as many people joked, once she learned there would be no more sports to follow, she decided it was time to go. Besides, the Chiefs had finally won the Super Bowl, so how could life on earth get any better than that? It was time to join her beloved parents, Joseph and Hanna, and her sister Marjorie, as well as her monastic family members on the other side of the veil. Late in the morning on March 15, she made a typically quiet exit.
All of Jeremy’s community members, family, students, friends, and colleagues hold her dear and have cherished memories of her; in this reflection, I have been able to touch on just some of the aspects of her utterly unique, wise, witty, and humble self. She was true to the expression of God she found within herself, delighted in simple pleasures, and accepted what life offered with open and steady hands—and in doing so, she showed us the good life that we attain when we truly listen with the ear of our heart. I would like to end by giving Jeremy the last word through a poem she wrote called A Triumphal Entry:
We are marching toward
Our heavenly Subiaco—our monastic realm
We are processing with haste yet with decorum
In our Sunday best, with gracious countenances;
Our shoes are shined and our attire well coordinated.
Yet some are hobbling out of step
With hems uneven, in comfort shoes
With scuffed toes.
We have come via Eichtstadt, Germany, St. Mary, Pennsylvania, and St. Cloud, Minnesota
To become firmly established in a place
Where we have Kansas soil
On our hands and marks of the Midwest’s wind on our faces.
Some lead armies of well-disciplined students
Whose successes have won them realms of their own
Others lead troops of seemed failures
Who will surprise us from the doors of their own mansions.
Some carry the Ark containing position papers and documents,
Vision Statements and constitutions and constitutional norms
And implementations and volumes of Upon This Tradition.
Others tote baskets of fresh eggs and cabbage, pickled beets and potato peels,
Or push carts of white tablecloths and feast day candlesticks.
We chant the psalmody as one voice.
We have been shown the Way and
Have been told what to discard and what to pack.
We have been taught that the routes on our map are
Drawn with lines of love on winding roads.
We are nearing our Subiaco…our Jerusalem.
We will know it when we arrive. They will know us by our voices.
And He will know us because we have known Him.
Then someone is bound to ask Him, “But what does it mean to be ‘monastic’?”
An illuminated scroll will unfold with a finite definition of MONASTIC.
Sister Susan will set this to Mode #8 and with antiphonal in hand
We can chant this in practiced tones for eternity.
Yes, we will have a triumphal entry…dancing or limping…on key…or off.