Memories of the Rev. Canon Dennis Glen Michno
May 15, 1947–September 26, 2018
By Michael Newago
I will never forget meeting Fr. Dennis on a humid August afternoon in 1996. I worked for a mortician, and we struggled up the four steep steps of Christ Episcopal Church in Bayfield, Wisconsin, with the heavy casket of a longtime parishioner.
As we approached the red doors, a short priest in a cassock, surplice, biretta, and purple stole appeared at the door and directed our every effort, castigating us for not bringing the deceased in the door feet first, as was the traditional custom for the laity. “Turn her around,” he barked, waving his limbs dramatically, not satisfied until we brought the casket to the door and placed it on the trestle. “Now get up here and hold the aspergillum for me while we receive the body.”
I looked at him in confusion.
“Ohhh,” he sighed. “We have a lot to teach you before you become a priest.”
How could this priest know that I had been discerning a vocation to the priesthood? I shrugged it off. But the topic would not be as easily dismissed in the future.
I finally attended Christ Church just after Thanksgiving of 1996 and was immediately caught by the beauty of the liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer, and the dynamo that was Dennis Michno. I never thought a priest could juggle all the roles he did that day: celebrant, preacher, organist, cantor, and host.
I was hooked, but it took a couple of years for me to be received into the Episcopal Church. On that day, July 18, 1999, Dennis beamed like proud parent. This was the beginning of five of the most formative years of my life in the church.
These are some of the biographical and career high points of Canon Michno’s life.
- He was the son of Polish Roman Catholic parents living in Mount Prospect, Illinois. His father was a butcher and his mother was a homemaker.
- He started piano lessons at age 5 and was playing in Chicago-area churches by age 8.
- He graduated from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, in the late 1960s and “devoured as many liturgy courses as he could” during his student years there. From there he moved to New York City to attend Julliard, where he completed degrees in piano, harpsichord, and organ performance.
- He then studied at General Theological Seminary, earning an MDiv and an STM in five years. During seminary, Dennis served as the musical director of a synagogue in Brooklyn and spent hours at St. Vladimir’s Seminary with Alexander Schmemann.
- He was a consultant to the Standing Liturgical Commission as it prepared the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
- Dennis wrote A Manual for Acolytes: The Duties of the Server at Liturgical Celebrationsand later, at the urging of Morehouse Publishing, A Priest’s Handbook: The Ceremonies of the Church.
- Dennis often said he believed A Priest’s Handbook was a starting point for other liturgists like Howard Galley and Lionel Mitchell, and that his book was “never completely done.”
- Dennis loved cooking and once prepared Peking duck for Julia Child and her husband, Paul. Dennis remembered her evaluation: “It’s very good.” Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking had inspired Dennis to write A Priest’s Handbook in a similar manner: sequential and easy to learn. He sent a copy of the first edition to Child and she remarked on the thoroughness of the indexing.
- Dennis was struck with multiple sclerosis two years after his ordination and was placed on retirement by the bishop immediately. Dennis strongly believed he contracted MS after serving a short period of time as the diocesan exorcist. He was only expected to live five to ten years. He outlived that prognosis by 35 years.
- Dennis was Benedictine at heart and modeled his home and life on the monastic setting. He prayed the office using The Monastic Diurnal Revised by the Community of St. Mary, Eastern Province.
- Each week at Christ Church, Dennis composed a new gradual psalm, pointed each verse, and served as cantor. In the 11 years he was in Bayfield, we figured he composed more than 700 new gradual psalms.
- Music was so vital to Dennis’ life that if he couldn’t play he thought his “brain would shrink and he would go mad.” To that effect, he owned a Steinway grand piano, a harpsichord that was rescued from Boston Harbor, and a Johannus organ, all installed in his home on the hill in Bayfield. One room was built specifically for the piano, and the organ was installed in a room especially designed according to his plan for proper acoustics.
- Dennis chose a life of celibacy and said he never regretted it. God was enough for him.
The Rev. Michael Newago is priest in charge of St. Barnabas’ Church in Havana, Illinois.