From Texas Baptist to Orthodox Saint?

Terry Mattingly, like Rod Dreher, is an excellent writer. Here Mattingly scores a grand slam.

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From: Get Religion | Terry Mattingly

Reprinted with permission of the author.

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 pre-school 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 4th century bishop of Myra.

As snacks were served, a child asked if Dmitri liked his donuts 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 donuts 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 was 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 donuts with sprinkles and icing were “more Orthodox” than plain donuts.

Archbishop 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 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 Russian.

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 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 slots 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 1977, then Bishop Dmitri was elected — in a landslide — as the OCA metropolitan, to lead the national hierarchy in Syosset, New York. 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”) Dmitri.

“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 Apostles.’ “


  1. Fr. Yousuf Rassam says

    “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.”

    One might like the way that is written, and imagine that the author was thinking great thoughts when he wrote it, but it is almost completely wrong. This event happened in 1977, as is easily discovered from the link above. Abp. Dmitri was not elected in a landslide, but nominated. The votes for nomination were not “the clergy vote”, but votes of clergy and lay delegates. The Synod did not “appoint” another Metropolitan who wasn’t elected. The Synod is actually where the Election of the Metropolitan takes place, and on that occasion, as per Statute, they elected one of the nominees nominated by the clergy and lay delegates. (Whether their decision was a good one is another matter!!)

    I also doubt that the older emigre bishops thought of Met. Theodosius as “one of their own”, since the very same bishops had, on the previous occasion in 1965 not elected Bp. Vladimir (later Met of Japan), who had more nominating votes because they did not feel the time was ripe for an American born Metropolitan, and Met Vladimir was a Slav born in PA. They chose “one of their own”, Met. Iriney, and emigre. I am told that going in to the 1977 Sobor, the emigre bishops had hoped for one more “of their own” in Abp. Sylvester who had already been Administrator of the OCA for 3 years as Met. Iriney’s health declined. I suspect they thought they were meeting the nominating clergy and laity half way in electing an American born Metropolitan.

    I have never heard that Abp Dmitri studied “old Russian” which is a rather arcane subject. I suspect that Mr. Mattingly meant Church Slavonic.; I think that that study took place back in the days of the Metropolia, pre- OCA.

    I have never been able to shake the memory of reading Mr Mattingly’s obit for the late Abp. Iakovos, which like wise made an attempt to give his readers the “inside scoop”. That obit gave me an idea of what to expect, and Mr Mattingly does not disappoint expectations.

    One is hardly surprised at George’s enthusiasm for, um, journalists, who lace their articles with the common fare of George’s own blog (; I am sure I saw the erroneous 1970 date in a comment here at Monomakhos this year, though it may have been on OCAnews. One has difficulty keeping track of which is which.

    • George Michalopulos says

      Fr Yousef, you strain at the gnat while swallowing the camel. The truth of the matter as written in a broad narrative by Mattingly is not only correct historically speaking, but diagnoses the problems of all ethnic Orthodox jurisdictions who at that time could not let go of their xenophobia.

      An example: the late Archbishop +Iakovos, who had earlier spoken against grandstanding civil rights marches and rightly (in my opinion) asked instead if white Americans would do what was necessary and actually employ black Americans so that they could rise out of their economic straights, ultimately came to the conclusion that perhaps a grandstanding play was called for after all. As for the xenophobias I mentioned above, +Iakovos was widely reviled within the GOA because of his stance with MLK and received death threats.

      We could strain at the gnats provided by the historical record but that is not what is remembered –nor what is important–is it? After all, the victor of Nicaea was St Athanasius the Great, who was exiled at least six times, while Arius and his pernicious continued to be popular. So popular in fact that the See of Constantinople remained firmly committed to Arianism for the next century. Likewise the Iconodules; though they were vindicated by the 7th Ecumenical Council, the Iconoclasts still had actual control of the Empire. it took another 3 generations for the icons to be restored. We however do not dwell on the actual putting in of the icons but their legal restoration by the Council. In other words, we recognize the working of the Holy Spirit as the pivotal moment when the bishops at the Council chose to be inspired by Him. (As they were earlier at Nicaea.)

      As for the election of the non-entity instead of +Dmitri who was one of the Helmsmen of our Decline, I was not there. However one of my correspondents, a certain Nikos was, and he eloquently related how dejected the assembled delegates were when +Dmitri –the overwhelming choice–was rejected. One the most dejected people was Fr Schmemann of blessed memory.

      Fr, if you will forgive me, though history is made up of facts, it is the narrative that is remembered.

    • And your point Fr Yousef? Really, such a post is trying to tell us what about you? We get it, you don’t like Mattingly’s obit, you don’t like George’s take on things, It is also clear you never personally knew Archbishop Dmitri.

      So exactly on what authority are you gracing us with you “wisdom?” You sound like one of Barbara’s “correspondents.” Maybe you are! Spare us, please.

  2. Mattingly’s piece, like Dreher’s, is beautifully written. They capture the heart of the man.

    I met Abp. Demetri only once, when I joined in a hierarchal liturgy with other area priests at St. Demetrius OCA in Naples, Florida where Abp. Demetri was making a pastoral visit. He was genial and a pleasure to serve with.

    Then he preached. This man really knows his stuff, I thought. And it just got better. “He really preaches the Gospel,” I told Fr. Gleb, the priest at St. Demetrius. “He always preaches that way,” Fr. Gleb responded.

    The tributes to the man are moving. Almost all deal with personal encounters. Clearly he had the heart of a true pastor.

  3. Actually, this was my national “On Religion” column for Scripps Howard.

  4. Please correct my typo on the date of the election. The error was mine.

  5. George Michalopulos says

    Terry, I made the change. Still, overall, it is an excellent summation of his life. Keep up the good work. American Orthodoxy needs skilled writers such as you and Dreher to spread the Word. Now, without +Dmitri, it’s going to be harder.

  6. I like jalapeno bagels from Panera.