Father Dennis’s is a face I’m sure all of you will recognize. If you’ve never had the fortune of taking a class with him, you’ve probably seen him on the trek to Snyder Hall, people watching on the weekends, or celebrating mass. Way back in April of last semester, I got to sit down with him in his Snyder apartment. During the first interview, a phone call interrupted and completely negated the recording and he was so kind and patient while I switched to airplane mode and started over.
Father Dennis was born in Brooklyn and moved to northern New Jersey when he was six. He went to Fordham University before transferring to Siena with the idea of becoming a friar already in mind. Graduating in 1975, he joined the friars just a month later. From a novice in Boston to three years studying theology for the priesthood in D.C., he came back to Siena in 1979 as a campus minister and teacher. In 1982 he went to grad school at the University of Chicago, returned in 1986 and has been here ever since.
What drew you to become a friar?
When I was in grade school they came and gave a parish mission where I was in catholic school. I didn’t really know who they were, and they were very engaging, but nothing really clicked then. When I went on a retreat at the Franciscan retreat house my senior year of high school I got to know the friars. I kept up the relationship and then a couple years later I really started thinking seriously about joining them. After two years at Fordham I thought, “I really need to take a closer look at this.” That’s why I transferred to Siena; I didn’t even know what Siena was, I’d never heard of it, and now it’s become the place where I’ve spent most of my life.
How did you end up here?
When I said I wanted to take a closer look at the friars the vocation director told me about a program at Siena for prospective friars. And I’m like, “Siena? I’ve never heard of it.” But obviously I had a really good experience with the friars here. And some of the guys I studied with at Siena are still my classmates today. In fact, Father Mullin and I graduated together, we went through Boston and D.C. together, and we were ordained together in 1980.
What made you choose to go on and also become a priest?
I felt a call to sacramental ministry (masses, baptisms, weddings, etc.). I was drawn to that as a friar, though not everyone is. Some want to live the Franciscan life but, y’know, one of the guys said they don’t necessarily want to work on Sundays. You do condemn yourself to work on Sundays if you get ordained, but I don’t mind that.
So what are your duties as just a friar?
St. Francis said that the friars could do any work that is not contrary to the gospel. So you know, we couldn’t run a brothel like in Measure for Measure (because I had just been in the show prior to this interview). A lot of the friars want to live the prayer life and live in the community, but they don’t feel called to sacramental ministry so they’ll do other things, like the brothers that teach here.
You work in the prison system. Can you tell us what you do there?
I currently work at five prisons in the area where I do sacramental ministries. I celebrate mass, I hear confessions, or I sometimes do a baptism or confirmation. I’ve even done a wedding in the prison. It’s rare, but it does happen. At two of the prisons there’s a hospital, so sometimes I’ll visit the sick or go to solitary confinement and visit with them. Sometimes they want spiritual advice, and sometimes they want to argue with me about the bible. It’s okay, I can take that.
What do you like most about Siena?
I think the sense of community that we have. In the 90’s I was in a band with like ten students and two other faculty members, and I was just talking to one of the other members the other day about why the band worked so well. It was because we were a community. The students who were our fans and came to hear us were our community. We were all kind of in it together, and I had that sense of community in the classroom, in the friars, in the residence halls, and in service trips, for example.
Which you chaperone right? Which is your favorite place to go?
I’ve done habitat, I’ve done one of the overseas trip to Haiti, and I’ve done the St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia. Every trip I go on I say that it’s the best trip I’ve ever been on, and in that moment it is the best trip I’ve ever been on. I love them all, but there’s a special place in my heart for the Haiti trip because that’s a little bit rougher, more meaningful. We had a couple of guys from Haiti that came here after the earthquake; one went back and started a middle/high school and the other an orphanage. I went to the school with students for a week and taught English.
What classes do you teach here?
I’ve taught about ten courses in the Religious Studies over the years. Most often, I teach the Reformation or Intro to Religious Thought. Sometimes, I teach Intro to Christian Theology. I teach a seminar on Interfaith and Ecumenical Dialogue, and I actually have started teaching outside the Religious Studies. Right now, I’m teaching two students in a tutorial (where there is less than a full class size and the group decides their own meeting times and places) in German 201 (intermediate German) and I’m also teaching in the First Year Seminar.
Which is your favorite?
I really like teaching the FYS, but a secret desire has always been to teach language so I’m getting a real charge out of the German class. I would love to teach a full size intermediate German class. We’ll have a little dialogue, listen to music, we read some poetry. It’s a grammar course, so they’re learning the structure of the language. I think what really counts is using it, so we begin each class with a half hour of conversation. It’s hard for me to decide on a favorite in anything, but I’m really enjoying that one.
What instruments do you play?
I play the guitar, drums, and some ukulele. None of them would I say I’m great at but I have a good time. This band I was in in the 90’s, I played drums on some songs, guitar on others, and sang lead vocals on some. We were a cover band, though I’ve been in a band since then where we wrote our own music.
Got anything on itunes?
Are there any styles of music or particular songs you like to play?
I love to do classic rock and folk oriented things like James Taylor. I like all genres of music, though I’m not too big on hip-hop or rap. I really like show tunes, too. I’m a big fan of Broadway musicals. Somebody gave me a three DVD set on the history of Broadway, and a CD full of some of them best Broadway songs, which I’m really enjoying.
In that case, what’s your favorite musical?
Man of La Mancha. It’s got a great story, great music, and that’s the only play I’d really like to be in before I die. I’d like to play the friar, or the monk. I have always enjoyed Pippin though, and I do like Les Mis.
This is a good segway into his favorite book, which, other than the bible, is To Kill a Mockingbird. For movies, favorites are a little bit harder. “I think I have to have one from each genre!” Blazing Saddles for comedy, Schindler’s List for drama, and Raider’s of the Lost Ark for drama.
I’ve seen you at most of our productions here, so do you have a favorite that you’ve seen at Siena?
Well, I really enjoyed Measure for Measure. I thought it was a really fine production, and not just because they consulted me on it! I just really enjoyed the show, it was really great. There have been a lot of good ones over the years, though. Child Soldier I thought was very good. Stage III does a lot of good shows, though I would love to see something more mainstream maybe once a year.
Okay, last thing. Can you tell us anything about the book you’re working on?
The fact is, I’m working on it very slowly and I keep getting distracted because of all this other stuff I’m involved in. It’s a book of questions and answers about the reformation of the 16th century. So it’s all about Martin Luther, John Calvin, all those people and then the Catholic Church’s own renewal. It’s called 101 Q&A on the Reformation. Hopefully out by next year.
Anything I missed?
Actually, there is one other interest. And it’s one of those, jack-of-all-trades master of none, but I like photography. I have a good camera, though I still haven’t learned how to use it to maximum effect. I’ve taken a handful that I consider to be really good pictures, but I’m no professional.