From Texas Baptist to Orthodox saint?
From Texas Baptist to Orthodox saint?
By TERRY MATTINGLY - Scripps Howard News Service
First Posted: August 31, 2011
Wherever bishops travel, churches plan lavish banquets and other solemn
tributes to honor their hierarchs.
Visitations by Archbishop Dmitri Royster of the Orthodox Church in
America were different, since the faithful in the 14-state Diocese of
the South knew that one memorable event would take care of itself. All
they had to do was take their leader to a children's Sunday-school class
and let him answer questions.
During a 1999 visit to Knoxville, Tenn., the lanky Texan folded down
onto a kid-sized chair and faced a circle of preschool and elementary
children. With his long white hair and flowing white beard, he resembled
an icon of St. Nicholas -- as in St. Nicholas, the monk and
fourth-century bishop of Myra.
As snacks were served, a child asked if Dmitri liked his doughnuts plain
or with sprinkles. With a straight face, the scholarly archbishop
explained that he had theological reasons -- based on centuries of
church tradition -- for preferring doughnuts with icing and sprinkles.
A parent in the back of the room whispered: "Here we go." Some of the
children giggled, amused at the sight of the bemused bishop holding up a
colorful pastry as if he were performing a ritual.
"In Orthodoxy, there are seasons in which we fast from many of the foods
we love," he said. "When we fast, we should fast. But when we feast, we
should truly feast and be thankful." Thus, he reasoned, with a smile,
that doughnuts with sprinkles and icing were "more Orthodox" than plain
Dmitri made that Knoxville trip to ordain yet another priest in his
diocese, which grew from a dozen parishes to 70 during his three
decades. The 87-year-old missionary died last Sunday (Aug. 28) in
Dallas, in his simple bungalow -- complete with leaky kitchen roof --
next to Saint Seraphim Cathedral, the parish he founded in 1954.
Parishioners were worried the upstairs floor might buckle under the
weight of those praying around his deathbed.
The future archbishop was raised Southern Baptist in the town of Teague,
Texas, before moving to Dallas. As teens, Royster and his sister became
intrigued with the history of the major Christian holidays and began
visiting a variety of churches, including an Orthodox parish. The
services were completely in Greek, but they joined anyway -- decades
before evangelical-to-Orthodox conversions became common.
During World War II, the young Texan learned Japanese in order to
interrogate prisoners of war, while serving on Gen. Douglas MacArthur's
staff. A gifted linguist, he later taught Greek and Spanish classes on
the campus of Southern Methodist University. While training to serve in
the OCA, which has Russian roots, he learned Old Russian and some modern
Early in his priesthood, the Dallas parish was so small that Dmitri
helped his sister operate a restaurant to support the ministry, thus
becoming a skilled chef who was become famous for his hospitality and
love of cooking for his flocks. During his years as a missionary bishop,
driving back and forth from Dallas to Miami, monks in New Orleans saved
him packages of his favorite chicory coffee and Hispanic parishioners
offered bottles of homemade hot sauce, which he stashed in special
compartments in his Byzantine mitre's traveling case.
A pivotal moment in his career came just before the creation of the
Diocese of the South. In 1970, then-Bishop Dmitri was elected -- in a
landslide -- as the OCA metropolitan, to lead the national hierarchy in
Syosset, N.Y. But the ethnic Slavic core in the synod of bishops ignored
the clergy vote and appointed one of its own.
Decades later, the Orthodox theologian Father Thomas Hopko described the
impact of that election this way: "One could have gone to Syosset and
become a metropolitan, or go to Dallas and become a saint."
The priest ordained in Tennessee on that Sunday back in 1999 shared this
judgment, when reacting to the death of "Vladika" (in English, "master")
"There are a number of saints within Orthodox history who are given the
title 'Equal to the Apostles,' " noted Father J. Stephen Freeman of Oak
Ridge. "I cannot rush beyond the church and declare a saint where the
church has not done so, but I can think of no better description of the
life and ministry of Vladika Dmitri here in the South than 'Equal to the
(Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council
for Christian Colleges and Universities. Contact him at
tmattingly(at)cccu.org or http://www.tmatt.net.)