Slain Catholic college professor had been discerning diaconate

OAKLAND, Calif. (CNS) -- Just a week before he was shot to death, John Alfred Pierre Dennis, a professor at St. Mary's College in Moraga, had attended his second class in a 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," the priest told The Catholic Voice, diocesan newspaper of Oakland.

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.

The professor's murder is the second violent tragedy to strike a St. Benedict parishioner in less than a year. Chauncey Bailey, an Oakland investigative journalist, was murdered in Oakland during the summer.

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."

Dennis had been a parishioner at St. Benedict's for the past 18 years, serving as a lector, an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and a choir member. "He brought a wonderful spirit to everything he did," said Father Matthews.

The priest 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," he said.

Dennis was a mentor in the high potential program at St. Mary's College, a project he founded 35 years ago for students who were the first generation in their family to attend college. He also lectured at the college's School of Liberal Arts, served on the faculty of City College of San Francisco and taught at the Edward Sands Adult School in East Oakland.

Even with his busy schedule, 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."

Dennis died on the second anniversary of the death of his father.

Grief and shock over his murder also rippled throughout the St. 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 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 Brother Sandrel.

He said 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 members opened up the ministry center for the mourners, where they stayed until midnight.

Most students had returned that weekend from their winter break, but some did not learn of their teacher's death until they arrived on campus that 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."

A memorial Mass for Dennis was celebrated Feb. 20 in the St. Mary's College chapel. A funeral Mass took place Feb. 18 at St. Benedict's Church in Oakland.

Survivors include his stepmother, Florence Dennis of Battle Creek, Mich., and his nephew, Josh Dennis of Sacramento.

Copyright (c) 2008 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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