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A Shepherd with the Smell of Sheep

BY MADELINE ZUKOWSKI, DSHA '11
An ordained preist, Social Studies and Theology faculty Fr. Dennis Thiessen, SDS, uses his salvatorian charism to relate to DSHA students, faculty and staff. 

In 2013, Pope Francis urged priests not to isolate themselves, but to make a connection with their parishioners and people. He called it “being a shepherd living with the smell of the sheep.” Fr. Dennis lives this daily, and students and faculty love him for it.
Faculty member Fr. Dennis Thiessen, SDS, likes Mondays, so much so thathe’s known to say “TGIM” (Thank God it’s Monday).
 
Theology faculty Lisa Metzonce asked him why the first day of the school week is his favorite. He told her, “Well, I get to be here and teach and see all my students on Monday. I love when the weekend’s over because I get to go back to doing what I love.”
 
Fr. Dennis is a member of both the theology and social studies faculty at DSHA and the only priest currenly on staff. This semester, he’s teaching two sections of Behavioral Science, two sections of Christology, and a section of Cultures and Civilizations.
 
It was on DSHA freshman retreat more than six years ago that Fr. Dennis, then working for the provincial of the Salvatorian order in Wisconsin, was asked to preside over Mass and commented on how much he missed working with students. Previously he had taught in three schools; teaching is what always captured his heart, even though he did many jobs for his order, including working in Rome. At the time of the freshman retreat, he learned DSHA was hiring. He thought about it “for 10 minutes” and was then determined to teach Dashers.
 
NOT JUST A FATHER, BUT A FRIEND
 
Fr. Dennis has grown a love for his DSHA students. They’re excited to learn; they don’t have an attitude; they’re articulate and funny.
 
Kathryn Lagore, DSHA ’21, was impressed with Fr. Dennis when she first attended his class. He was a good teacher, but also knew how to have fun in the classroom.
 
“That helped me coming in as a freshman,” she said. “He gave us a good glimpse of DSHA. I learned a lot and had fun doing it.”
 
It turns out the love is mutual.
 
While most students call teachers at DSHA by their last name, Fr. Dennis goes by his first, or by Papa D, whichever the students prefer. The nickname comes from Jesuit High School at which he was a teacher near his hometown of Sacramento, California. The students there were calling a certain teacher Papa O behind his back, and Fr. Dennis didn’t mind if students wanted to call him Papa D — even in front of him.
 
He only asks that students do not call him by his last name. “You can call me Fr. Dennis, you can call me Papa D, just don’t call me Fr. Thiessen,” he said. “All first names, that’s the custom in the (Salvatorian) order.”
 
A TRUE SALVATORIAN
 
Fr. Dennis began his journey to the priesthood at age 14, which was “very common” in the 1960s. He was encouraged by his parish priest and his teachers, who were religious Sisters. They would make comments such as, “Denny would make a good priest.”
 
He remembers going with his mother to a women’s church event at St. Pius X Seminary, the Salvatorian-run seminary in the Diocese of Sacramento, when he was in seventh grade. A seminarian from his hometown showed him around the boarding school — he saw the bedrooms, classrooms and the recreational activities they had on the grounds. He thought it would be a “cool place to go.”
 
While he didn't know it at the time, the Salvatorian priests and brothers would become his teachers and mentors.
 
Fr. Dennis decided after a few years in the seminary that he wanted to be a Salvatorian priest and a teacher in order to stay connected to young people. The best teacher he ever had was a Salvatorian history teacher, and he loved his junior year hall moderator at St. Pius X Seminary, who was a newly ordained Salvatorian.
 
“I take very seriously our charism that essentially says we come to know God through the goodness and kindness of others,” he said. “I try to be good and kind — not a pushover teacher — but to make it obvious to the girls that I care about them, I want to be here, and they’re important to me. I want them to feel comfortable around me.”
 
Ask any faculty, staff or student about Fr. Dennis, and he won’t sound anything like the perceived stereo-typical priest. He’s fun, has a good attitude, and doesn’t distinguish himself from others because he’s ordained.
 
“He’s easy going,” said Social Studies department chair Patrick Dawson. “Hemakes students feel at ease. He’s a priest,but he’s also very relatable.”
 
It’s clear he doesn’t disagree.
 
“I don’t stand on ceremony,” he said. “I don’t scold for questioning Church teaching; I welcome questions and challenges and things like that. I tend to be a bit more informal, I like to make people laugh.”
 
HIS QUIRKY SIDE
 
There are some things that others may find quirky about Fr. Dennis: his love of Mondays, his crazy socks — which he wears with Birkenstocks —his stories about his cat “Quidditch” or “Quiddy” for short, his love of presidential libraries — almost all of which he’s seen —and his ability of find humor in just about anything.
 
"He embraces that quirkiness and understands that he’s a unique spirit," says Metz.
 
Metz explains that his laughter is contagious; if he finds something funny that others don’t, others might end up laughing just because he is.
 
“It’s nice to have him around,” she said. “He keeps things pretty light.”
 
LIFELONG PRIEST AND TEACHER
 
Although he can have fun, Fr. Dennis takes his role as both teacher and priest seriously. As the priest chaplain at DSHA, he finds power in the confessional and offers the Sacrament of Reconciliation to students every week. He often celebrates Masses with the DSHA community and is impressed with the optional liturgy attendance during Worship Wednesdays.
 
“I am really amazed at the number of girls who come to the Worship Wednesday Masses, that we pretty much fill the chapel,” he said. “I find that amazing. It’s voluntary, so (students) don’t have to be there.”
 
Perhaps they come because they know when you have Fr. Dennis, you get a quality Mass or class. Dawson commented on how diligent Fr. Dennis is.
 
“If he’s going to be teaching a class, he’ll start preparing for months before the class begins,” Dawson said. “He’ll read the textbook and start preparing. He’s incredibly prepared and likes having that time to prepare.”
 
Perhaps they come for his stories, which he weaves into homilies and class. With almost 41 years of priesthood under his belt, he has lots of stories to tell.
 
DSHA, founded by the Salvatorian Sisters, is home to Fr. Dennis. The mission of his order is alive and well here.
 
“I’m pleased as punch to be here,” he said. “Comparisons are odious, but it’s nice to end with my favorite assignment in my career.
 
“I’m not dying,” he added. “Everyone has to retire sooner or later. And while I'm not quite ready for that yet, this is a nice way to have a last assignment.”
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    • Fr. Dennis Thiessen, the only priest currently on staff, has a love for and a great connection with his students.

    • Fr. Dennis, pictured here during his freshman year at St. Pius X Seminary, spends Christmas morning with his parents at his childhood home in Fairfield, California.

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