Mary Elizabeth Dempsey
Mary Dempsey was born in St. Paul, MN, to the delight of her parents William J. and Katherine Melady Dempsey. She was the descendent of three generations of industrious Irish immigrants whose families had settled and established businesses in the St. Paul area. Those ancestral roots anchored in family, education, community, and faith were the foundation from which she built a purposeful and accomplished life, while having a whole lot of fun!
As a young child, Mary Beth (as she was known in the family) loved investigating how things worked and was thrilled to receive her first chemistry kit to conduct experiments in her family’s basement. She excelled at academics, graduating with honors from the Convent of the Visitation School, and later the College of St. Catherine. After receiving her PhD from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, she was appointed one of the first female professors in the College of Biochemistry.
Mary’s four-decades long academic career was marked by excellence in research, teaching, and scientific mentorship. Her prescient scientific articles on cholesterol biosynthesis, lipid transport and lipid metabolism led the way in our understanding of cholesterol’s role in heart disease just as the country was beginning to understand the severity of its cardiovascular disease epidemic. As the professor in charge of the U of M’s Medical School biochemistry course, Mary had a foundational role in the education of generations of Minnesota’s health care providers. She provided mentorship and laboratory opportunity for scores of students and researchers in their pursuit of scientific excellence.
Dr. Dempsey’s academic research allowed her to collaborate with many colleagues around the world, spawning a lifelong love of travel and exploration of the rich diversity of customs, religions, and arts. Her homes were decorated with hand-crafted mementos from her varied travels to Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas. After her retirement in 2003, she continued to travel with a focus on pilgrimage sites around the world, often finding a way to “swing by” to visit friends in her beloved Ireland.
While Mary enjoyed travelling, she also enjoyed creating welcoming spaces for her wide circle of friends. Her childhood home in Highland Park, her cabin on the North Shore of Lake Superior, and her condo on the island of Sanibel were the sites of many an enjoyable, if not raucous, meal and get together. Splitting her time annually at all three homes (timed for the best weather at each, of course!), Mary built long-lasting, loving friendships in each locale starting with her church communities of St. Gregory’s, St. John’s, and St. Isabel’s, and expanding to the locals and staff at her favorite donut stores, grocery shops, and homey restaurants.
Wherever her career or travels took her, Mary Beth quickly became active in, and a leader within, her communities. With her deep experience, easy-going approach, analytical mind, and quick wit, she could move a group along to build consensus and make decisions. She will be remembered for her board and committee roles with the UMN Academic Senate, Newman Center, Salesian community, Highland Park Women’s Club, and St. Catherine’s 50th Reunion Gift Committee, among many many others.
The last four years of Mary’s life were spent at Carondelet Village on the St. Catherine’s campus, where she continued to nurture old friendships and build new ones. She was always interested in hearing other people’s stories. With her prodigious memory (she would remember everything!), she made sure to ask about a fellow resident’s ailing brother or a staff member’s new baby. Never one to be shy or retiring, Mary Beth made an impact wherever she went engaging in lively conversation, sneaking treats to her friends’ dogs, sharing a joke, debating politics, and generally riling up things around her. Her joyful “always ready for a party” spirit and rascally sense of humor came through in all she did. You couldn’t miss her walking down the halls with both her walker and her person festooned with the latest holiday’s flashy decorations.
Her most important and lifelong friendship was with her younger sister, Kathy, who was her school buddy, travel companion, faithful correspondent, and fellow spiritual worshiper. Whether on a paddlewheel boat trip down the Mississippi, a pilgrimage to Lourdes, or just a phone call across the country, the two sisters could be heard laughing and reminiscing over family stories. While they took different paths in their lives, they never lost their sisterly connection built on love and mutual support. Mary Beth was the Godmother of all seven of Kathy’s children.
Mary Dempsey’s life spanned a period of a cultural shift in our country from women’s roles being tightly defined to motherhood and a few professions, to women being able to pursue any path they choose. She modeled for a generation of young women that a woman can be a successful university researcher and professor in the sciences, a single woman can gain entry to a private social club previously only admitting married men, and an unmarried woman can have a rich, purposeful, and successful life. Her strength, determination, achievements, and successes, and her true love of living a purpose-filled happy life inspire all who knew her.
Mary Beth died peacefully in her sleep on February 22, 2021, and is survived by her sister Katherine Dempsey Sullivan of Lake Oswego, OR, her cousin Mary Lou Gruber of St. Paul, MN, her seven nieces and nephews and their families. Her friendship will be remembered by her beloved communities in St. Paul, Sanibel Island, Tofte, Grand Marais, and around the world.
Visitation 4-7 pm Tuesday, March 16, at O’HALLORAN & MURPHY FUNERAL HOME, 575 S. Snelling Ave., St. Paul. Mass of Christian Burial 10 am Tuesday, March 17, at LUMEN CHRISTI CATHOLIC CHURCH, 2055 Bohland Ave., St. Paul. Limited seating available. Mass will be livestreamed at https://lumenchristicc.online.church . In lieu of flowers, Mary’s family asks that you make donations to the Mary Dempsey Endowed Fellowship (11087) at the University of Minnesota Foundation (612-624-3333).
O’Halloran & Murphy Funeral Home 651-698-0796