Back in the day when readers loved novels with a rural setting, French writer Georges Bernanos wrote “The Diary of a Country Priest.”
Father John Dunlop could write his own novel on being a village priest. He is parish priest of Port Lions and Ouzinkie, and occasionally ministers to the people of Akhiok.
Dunlop’s novel would have an additional element. He also served as dean of St. Herman’s Theological Seminary for 13 years. He resigned from his post this spring.
Now that Dunlop has some time on his hands, perhaps that novel will see the light of day. Dunlop also writes poetry and, of course, sermons.
“I’ve always enjoyed creative writing,” said Dunlop. Because of his obligations as a priest and dean, he was not able to pursue that interest.
Dunlop appreciates the medium of storytelling, which is a vital aspect of the parishioners he serves, particularly the elders.
Over the years he listened to “incredibly interesting stories” during his village trips.
“Stories are part of the landscape of what is here,” he said. Dunlop also cherished the advice that elders passed on to him.
“I enjoy serving in the villages,” he said. “That’s where my strengths are. I’m happy to put my efforts into what I enjoy doing and where my creative energies can go into.”
Even though Dunlop has stepped down as dean, he will continue to be a seminary instructor. This semester he will teach liturgics and patristics, which, in the past, was taught by his wife, Matushka Bea Dunlop, who is going through the process of becoming a certified high school math teacher.
While at St. Herman’s, Matushka Bea also taught the New Testament. That subject will now be taught by Fr. Peter Tobias, parish priest in Kenai.
Fr. Vasilly Fisher, a seminary graduate and parish priest in the village of Napaskiak, will be acting dean.
Dunlop started teaching in the Seminary in 1996.
Throughout Dunlop’s tenure, the seminary continued programs that were initiated by his predecessors, such as the substance abuse counseling program.
“We wanted to work that (program) into our (curriculum) so that pastors are equipped to work with substance abuse issues,” said Dunlop.
The seminary is also continuing the inter-seminary exchange movement, which was started by former dean Fr. Chad Hatfield, who currently is dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, New York.
Several years ago, the seminary launched the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program, which trains students to become hospital chaplains.
Taking on the role of student, Dunlop took the course and has completed two units.
Due to the work of archivist Daria Simeonoff, the seminary has become a repository of Orthodox Church archives that help tell the colorful history of Orthodoxy in Alaska.
The aim of the seminary is to walk in the footsteps of the saints, said Dunlop.
“We are trying to bring Orthodox education and theology to the people here,” he said.
Because of his position as a priest, Dunlop’s relationship with his students transcended the academic.
He was able to provide spiritual and pastoral guidance, and a liturgical component, he said.
The seminary holds daily services at the chapel, which becomes “like a lab,” said Dunlop. The students aren’t “just reading about how to serve, but they have a chance to put together services and to serve in a liturgical capacity, so it’s a real-life training.”
The purpose of the seminary, said Dunlop, is to form priests and clergy for the Alaska Diocese. That formation isn’t “just intellectual or academic, but includes spiritual and character formation — how to live your life,” said Dunlop.
Dunlop, like other administrators and teachers, had to come up with novel approaches in operating the seminary throughout the COVID-19 shutdowns. Shortly after the outbreak, most of the seminarians returned to their communities in Western Alaska and other parts of the state. Classes and conferences were conducted online.
“We had to learn how to effectively teach ... online,” said Dunlop.
It will be much the same for at least the beginning semester this year. But education continues, even if the students are far away. The seminary officially opened on Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day. The new acting dean and his family are settled in.
“We have a good group of students,” said Dunlop. And even he no longer bears the title of “dean,” Dunlop is fully engaged in the seminary and will have lots of work to do. It may take awhile for that novel to be published.