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CURRENT ISSUE:  February 18, 2008
VOL. 46, NO. 4   •   Oakland, CA
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A scant seven days before beloved Saint Mary’s College professor John Alfred Pierre Dennis was shot to death, he had attended his second class as a new member of the pastoral ministry program for the Diocese of Oakland.

Dennis, 59, had enrolled in the program to discern whether he was called to become an ordained deacon, said Father Jay Matthews, Dennis’ pastor at St. Benedict Parish in Oakland.

“He wanted to serve the Church even more than he was already doing,” observed the priest.

John Alfred Pierre Dennis
Dennis was found shot to death in his car near a San Mateo County beach late in the evening of Feb. 9. Troy Thomas, 43, a recent parolee who had once been in a student outreach program run by Dennis, was arrested in connection with the crime when police discovered Dennis’ body in the back seat of a car Thomas was driving.

Oakland police said evidence at Dennis’ home indicated he was shot there during a violent confrontation.
Dennis had been a parishioner at St. Benedict’s for the past 18 years, serving as a lector, a Eucharistic minister, and a choir member. “He brought a wonderful spirit to everything he did,” said Father Matthews.

Calling the shooting a “tragedy,” Father Matthews praised Dennis for the high level of his commitment to children and young adults of color during his long teaching career. “He was very much a minister, helping kids to get out of their environments of violence and hopelessness.”

Dennis was a mentor in the High Potential Program at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, a project he founded 35 years ago. He also lectured in the School of Liberal Arts there. In addition, he made time in his busy schedule to serve on the faculty of City College of San Francisco and to teach at the Edward Sands Adult School in East Oakland.

As busy as he was, Dennis always managed to find spare time “to give a helping hand to those who needed it,” said Father Matthews. “He got a great deal of joy in serving others.”

An ironic twist to John Dennis’ last day on earth — it was the second anniversary of the death of his father.

Dennis’ death is the second violent tragedy to strike St. Benedict parishioners in less than a year. Chauncey Bailey, an Oakland investigative journalist, was murdered in downtown Oakland last August 5.
Both events came as terrible shocks, said Father Matthews. “Even when there is all this violence going on around us, we never think that it is going to touch us. This is just too close to home.”

Grief and shock likewise rippled throughout the Saint Mary’s College community in Moraga.

Christian Brother Michael Sandrel, dean for mission and ministry, said the students and faculty spontaneously began gathering in the college chapel on Feb. 10 as word spread of Dennis’ murder. “That they should come to the chapel is one of those organic happenings, which says a lot about our campus culture,” said Sandrel, himself a 1999 St. Mary’s graduate.

Sandrel said that students were standing outside the chapel in the evening cold, talking on cell phones to their friends. As the crowd continued to grow, he and his staff opened up the ministry center for the mourners, where they stayed until midnight.

Most students had returned that weekend from their January break, but some did not learn of their teacher’s death until they arrived on campus on Monday morning. Students and faculty filled the chapel, Feb. 11, for a prayer service. They wept as they remembered the beloved teacher, affectionately known at “Dr. D.”
As classes began for the winter quarter, teachers invited students to talk about Dennis and his impact upon them.

Sandrel had not been in any of Dennis’ classes, but “I knew who he was by his reputation.”

A memorial Mass for John Dennis is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 12:45 in the St. Mary’s College chapel.

Dennis’s funeral was scheduled for Feb. 18 at 6 p.m. at St. Benedict’s Church in Oakland.
Survivors include his stepmother, Florence Dennis of Battle Creek, Mich., and his nephew, Josh Dennis of Sacramento.

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