Reverend Monsignor James "Jim" Jarlath Dempsey

August 11, 1926 - December 31, 2019

Msgr. James Dempsey

Ordained May 26, 1956

Reverend Monsignor James “Jim” Dempsey, 93, of Beaumont, died Tuesday, December 31, 2019, at Christus Hospital-St. Elizabeth, Beaumont. 

These simple words mark the end of a long life of ministering – but the impact of Uncle Jimmy/Father Jim will continue for much longer. He loved interacting with people and living life to the fullest. He is described a most kind, generous and understanding man. In a visit he usually asked for five more minutes of your time when you said you needed to leave.

James Jarlath Dempsey Jr., was born on August 11, 1926, to Gertrude Mixson Dempsey and James Jarlath Dempsey Sr., in Beaumont. As a youth Jim attended St. Anthony Elementary and High School. He is remembered in Bulldog football history as the one who caught the extra point in the game against Beaumont High School – leading to St. Anthony winning 13-12.

After high school young Jim enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving from 1944 to 1946 and was a pilot. Completing his military career Jim came back to Texas to further his education. He enrolled at Texas A&M University and graduated from A&M with a degree in math. He did use that math degree and taught math one summer at Lamar Junior College. It is thought that he is the first A&M graduate to be ordained a Catholic priest.

Though he could have chosen a different life, Jim heard the call to the priesthood and answered that vocational call. In a 2016 interview, he said, “I had been in the Navy two years, then I went to A&M, and then I said, ‘I’m going to the seminary and give two years of my life to the Church before I get married,’” he said. “I changed my mind while I was there.”

He continued, “I don’t think you can beat being a priest to be honest with you. I don’t think there’s a better job,” he said. “You’re offering the Eucharist and forgiving sins. Sometimes people will come to you and they’re crying because they lost something or someone, and some people come to you because they want to celebrate with you. I’ve found that the priesthood has really suited me.”

He attended seminary at St. Mary in La Porte and in Houston. Bishop W.J. Nold ordained him May 26, 1956, at St. Mary Cathedral in Galveston for the Diocese of Galveston. Fortunately for Southeast Texas Father Dempsey was assigned to St. Anne in Beaumont when the Diocese of Beaumont was formed in September 1966. Father Dempsey was named a Prelate of Honor by Pope Benedict XVI in September 2009.

Father Dempsey spent most of his ministry as a priest at several parishes – all but one was in Southeast Texas. His first assignment was as an assistant at Blessed Sacrament, Houston. The rest were all in Southeast Texas – assistant at St. Charles Borromeo, Nederland; St. Anne, Beaumont; and Our Lady of the Assumption, Beaumont. He served as pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows, China, and at St. Therese, the Little Flower of Jesus, Port Arthur. He also served as the Diocesan Director of the Cursillo. Father Dempsey was a chaplain at St. Elizabeth Hospital, Beaumont, from 1988 until his retirement in 1999. In an October 2009 interview he said he felt he had an impact on people when he was a hospital chaplain. “I was able to give them the sacraments and see them in their difficult times.”

Father Eathan Oakes recently shared some thoughts about Father Dempsey. “You may hear it said that Father Dempsey, like all priests, was a ‘Priest of Jesus Christ.’ How true, but it is not merely ordination that makes that title especially appropriate — it was his disposition. He was a priest of Jesus Christ because he was a man who exhibited one of the greatest qualities of Jesus Christ — his love for the people around him…. Of all of the gifts someone can give us, time is one of the most precious because it cannot be recouped—once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. To give your time to someone is, in essence, to give your life. Father Dempsey spent his time giving it to each one of us. He learned about us, included us in his life, laughed with us, prayed with us, played with us and, sometimes, mourned with us. Like Jesus, he truly, from the heart, made his dwelling among us.”

Throughout his life, though his ministry was to the parishes, he was also present to his family as well. They remember Uncle Jimmy bringing his horse to their neighborhood so that they could ride. Another favorite memory is Uncle Jimmy treating them to meals at Bonanza.

Theresa Herink also shared some thoughts about Father Dempsey. “He never judged you and whatever you needed, he would do it for you,” she said. “He had an amazing sense of humor and loved to instigate people,” she continued. She shared some of Father Dempsey’s “favorites – Jason’s Deli, fudge, Sister Emily’s pralines, Little Debbie oatmeal pies, Cheetos, buttermilk, McRib sandwiches but especially being with people.

Though his last twenty years of life Father Dempsey was officially retired, he rarely took it easy. He continued his priestly ministry celebrating Masses for special intentions and doing parish replacement ministry as long as possible. Father Dempsey would participate in reconciliation services at parishes and would drop what he was doing when he was asked by someone to hear a confession. One recollection is that many times Father Dempsey gave you the penance of the prayer of St. Francis – and would recite it with you or share a copy with you. In an October 2009 interview he said that what he missed about being a parish priest was “administering the sacraments, especially confession.”

In his retirement Father Dempsey continued to stay active in a variety of activities that included knitting scarves, collecting stamps, staying informed on the stock market and visiting with friends and family members. Erin Mulvaney wrote this reminiscence after learning of Father Dempsey’s death about the time they spent together almost ten years before. “He was funny and told great stories. I learned piecemeal about his life. He was at the end of his career and reflecting back. I was at the beginning of mine, and very scared that I wouldn't accomplish anything worthwhile. After I left Beaumont, we stayed in touch and he regularly caught up on my life, and he often repeated pieces of advice. He became a subscriber to every publication I've ever worked for and read all my stories. This year, he called me on Christmas Eve and told me he was very impressed with me for being in D.C. and asked if I was happy. After we hung up on the short call, the last time we would talk, I thought about that time in my life years before and how he encouraged me to be ambitious but still made me realize that life is about much more than that.”

Father Dempsey was an athlete as long as he could be – tennis, volleyball, running, horseback riding and other activities. He was known to stand outside of church after Mass looking for a tennis partner. In December 1978, the Port Arthur News featured Father Dempsey in an article headlined “Priest runs for fun.” It included a photo of him and a couple of children from Little Flower Parish running and described him as “probably the most physically active of priests in the Beaumont Diocese.

Another newspaper article – Beaumont Enterprise June 1975 – described his beekeeping hobby. At the time he was pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows in China and had seven hives with a bee population of 50,000 per hive. He harvested about 600 pounds of honey a year.

Though he had a more difficult time getting around in his later years, Father Dempsey continued to go to the Lamar University Catholic Student Center to concelebrate Mass, hear confessions and have lunch with the students because the youth are important.

One youth, McKayla Herink had this to say after his death. “Father Dempsey had the kindest heart, most contagious laughter, and most generous soul. I will miss his funny emails and spontaneous phone calls. I know he’ll be looking out for me in heaven. He had so much love to give, always had a listening ear, and will be dearly missed.”

Father Dempsey’s favorite psalm was, “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” He always preached that and lived it, Toni Mulvaney said. “I think he always looked for God in everything he did in life. I will always think of him when I hear that psalm. The main thing about Father Dempsey is that he loved life. He made the most of every moment. He noticed and respected everything about it — especially people. He knew a lot of them, he made each one feel special. And all of us, we remember him with love.”

Survivors include his nieces, Margaret Sonnier Breaux and her husband, David; Mary Lou Sonnier Pearce and her husband, Tim; and Trudee Swain Markham and her husband, Barry; nephews, Donald J. “Donnie” Sonnier, Jr., and Beverly Moxley; Dr. Leo “Butch” Sonnier and his wife, Kathy; Tom Sonnier; David H. Swain, Jr., and his wife, Brenda; Curtis Swain; and Patrick Swain and his wife, Donna; and numerous grandnieces and nephews.

He was preceded in death by his parents; sisters, Trudeen Dempsey Swain and Mary Dempsey Sonnier; nieces, Cheryl “Cup” Sonnier Dana and Therese “Teri” Swain; nephew, James “Jimmy” Sonnier; and grandniece, Molly Ann Swain.

A gathering of Monsignor’s family and friends will be from 4:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m., with an Evening Prayer for the dead at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, January 9, 2020, at St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica, 700 Jefferson Street, Beaumont. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated by Bishop Curtis J. Guillory with concelebrating priests, at 11:00 a.m., Friday, January 10, 2020, at St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica, with a reception to follow in the Cathedral Center. His interment will be at 2:00 p.m., at Magnolia Cemetery, Beaumont. 

Memorial contributions for Monsignor Dempsey may be made to Some Other Place, P.O. Box 0843, Beaumont, Texas 77704, Catholic Charities of Southeast Texas, 2780 Eastex Freeway, Beaumont, Texas 77703, or Southeast Texas Food Bank, 3845 MLK Jr. Parkway, Beaumont, Texas 77720. 

Video

Gathering of Family and Friends
St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica
700 Jefferson Beaumont, TX 77701
Thursday, January 09, 2020
4:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Evening Prayer for the Dead
St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica
700 Jefferson Beaumont, TX 77701
Thursday, January 09, 2020
5:30 p.m.
Mass of Christian Burial
St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica
700 Jefferson Beaumont, TX 77701
Friday, January 10, 2020
11:00 a.m.
Interment
Magnolia Cemetery
2291 Pine St Beaumont, TX 77703

Comments (12)

  • Cheryl Wisenbaker

    29 March 2020 at 04:19 | #

    Father Dempsey was simply divine and whimsical. A real genius and unique blessing. He always remembered.... and gave me a special gift weeks before his death. I will never forget him. Sending much love to heaven. God bless.

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  • Robert Lowry

    24 January 2020 at 16:09 | #

    Rev Jim was an interesting and complex individual. As Mark Twain once said,
    “Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”
    Amen and Amen

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  • Mary Cox Rensberry

    08 January 2020 at 19:01 | #

    As a child on the Olga Mixson Chapman side of the family, I will always remember the twinkle in Father's eyes...he was so alive in Spirit. Full of playfulness and mischief! Our heartfelt prayers and condolences for his family and friends.

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  • Craig Sherlock

    08 January 2020 at 16:23 | #

    Fr Dempsey is my beloved cousin and I learned a great deal from his exemplary life that I care to remember. While we shared a family relationship, Fr. Dempsey believed everyone he met to be in kinship spiritually, socially, intellectually and physically. He genuinely loved everyone he encountered and lavished them with his sincere attention. Fr. Dempsey loved the Lord and His Church. He loved his brother priests, his bishops, his parishioners and he cherished sharing Jesus’ sacraments to the very end of his precious life. In his late years he particularly enjoyed ministering to the sick. He attended all healing Masses and insisted on anointing everyone even those claiming good health. Fr Dempsey knew part of our human condition is that we all bear scares. He believed everyone is carrying wounds somewhere spiritually, mentally, emotionally and or physically, and that the healing oil lightened our human burdens.
    He also enjoyed being active. He had numerous avocations in piloting, tennis, bridge, biking, photography, volleyball just to name a few. He shared those experiences and interests frequently.
    Fr Dempsey was a thinker. He pondered many of life’s mysteries, and now in the company of his Maker he holds the glorious answers, not the least of which is when Texas A&M will win a National Football Championship.
    The greatest treasures of Fr Dempsey’s life are his loving friends who over the years have become his loving caregivers. You helped him daily, checked on him, carried him to Mass, to dinner, to doctors, to grocery stores, and numerous other choirs. Fr. Dempsey’s entire family, community and church thank you sincerely for the love and attention you shared with him to this beautiful end where he now rests peacefully in the glory of our God.

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  • Jim Morrow

    08 January 2020 at 02:33 | #

    Years ago, Marty Green would talk about times (as a youngster) at the family beach house in the Boliver area, when he and his siblings and cousins would be out in the water loudly splashing and having fun while very nearby, peacefully fishing in a small boat, was his older cousin, Jim Dempsey. It was a wonder to Marty that all the close commotion didn't seem to bother fisherman JIm. Sometimes it may have even seemed that Jim enjoyed it.

    Father Dempsey has always been an example of welcome, peace, and interest. In 1964-65 Nederland, ever the sportsman and athlete, he managed to capture the interest and channel some of the football-centered energies of the 7th and 8th grade boys (at St Charles parish) into additional sports like volleyball and table tennis. He was a very good coach and teacher. The back of his Jeep had all types equipment in it.

    In the 1970's and beyond, as a guest speaker and priest bringing sacraments to retreats at the Lamar University Catholic Student Center, he continued to help guide others in their journey developing a more informed and mature faith.

    His smile, the twinkle in his eyes, his peaceful presence, and his kind words of guidance and encouragement . . . all these and so much more . . . the treasure known as Father Jim Dempsey.

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  • Katie Oliver Schatzlein

    07 January 2020 at 03:24 | #

    Father Dempsey married my sister and her husband, then later baptized my nephew. Always a man of humor,, he shows up at the baptism in wet tennis shoes. We all loved his casual approach to otherwise the dry and serious.
    Years later, at a Happening at the Newman Center at Lamar, he kept me from leaving that weekend with various promises of rewards. . I feared it would be just another solemn retreat. He stayed by my side until I was well enmeshed in the activities. Oh the difference to me, as out of that weekend came many beloved relationships, not the least, my husband..
    Thank you Father Dempsey, I always felt safe and accepted in your presence.

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  • Larry and Judy Mcfarland

    05 January 2020 at 14:35 | #

    What a wonderful man and dearly loved by so many people.

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  • Barbara & Tommy Leicht

    04 January 2020 at 18:21 | #

    Fr Dempsey was a life long friend which we cherished very much. Being St Anthony Bulldogs for 12 yrs, Neighbors for 25 yrs and enjoyed his companionship very much. He was a fantastic Priest who influenced many to the teachings of The Church. May His Soul and all the souls of the faithfully departed Rest-In_Peace.

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  • Susann Frasher Collins

    03 January 2020 at 03:38 | #

    My childhood memories at the Swain household include Father Dempsey , especially horse back riding !

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  • Michael R. Green,M.D.

    02 January 2020 at 19:39 | #

    Father Dempsey was always smiling when he greeted me when I was a young child ,teenager and,adult. He was given the highest praise by my earthly mother Mary Lou (Hebert) Green while she lived as a permanent member in spirit of the Beaumont,Texas homeland. Later as I completed many years of school and study He addressed me by the Greek/Latin word for teacher. The Beaumont family roots run deep and even the swarm of mosquitos at LaBelle have never completely erased the Holy Spirit I have been blessed by on visits to Jefferson County. My mother never really left Beaumont ‘Spirituality’ during my upbringing in Houston about her love for the family in Beaumont. Father Jim Dempsey a former student from Texas A&M University kept a ‘sparkle’ in his eye for me thru all the years I saw him.

    Gig ‘em Ags
    Texas A&M , Class’1970

    Michael R. Green,M.D.

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  • Raye and Robert Castro

    02 January 2020 at 19:08 | #

    We have loved Father Dempsey for years, we would miss him if we didn't see him con-celebrating at 5pm Mass on Sundays at St. Anne, and always looked forward to his powerful healing prayers at services he conducted , never failing to pray for for each individual no matter how long the line. May Father Dempsey rest in peace, and may Eternal Light shine upon him.

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  • Derrick and Traci Fowler

    02 January 2020 at 17:08 | #

    Our deepest sympathy to Ftr Dempsey's family and friends. He will forever be loved remembered fondly - he was a friend to all.
    Matthew 25:21 "His Master replied, 'Well done, my good and faithful servant'..."

    reply

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