It’s dawn on a Friday morning, and greeting the sunrise is Dennis Diekmann, stouthearted Knight and driver of the Order of Malta Mobile Ministries van. He arrives at the warehouse of Food Forward, a Los Angeles nonprofit that recovers surplus fresh fruits and vegetables (food that would have been wasted), and in partnership with Malta Mobile Ministries, delivers the fresh produce to LA’s needy families.
Dennis’s typical haul includes 50-pound boxes of cabbage, 40-pound boxes of bananas, 25-pound boxes of tomatoes, 30-pound boxes of lettuce, 30-pound boxes of Brussel sprouts, 25-pound boxes of squash, 50-pound boxes of potatoes, and other fruits and vegetables -- about 3,000 pounds in all. A former commodities trader, Dennis, with God’s grace, has come full circle. Once spending his days buying and selling millions of dollars of the basics of life via the fastest computers possible -- his specialty was petroleum products, these days he pumps gas into the Malta van and patiently weaves through the LA surface street traffic to deliver fresh food to his assigned destination – always one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
Today, he heads to St. Peter’s Italian Church in LA’s Chinatown where he is greeted by Steve Erigero, KM and charity coordinator of St. Peter’s pantry service. Dennis, Steve, and LA Location members and volunteers lift and unload the pallets of fresh food. Then they begin the work of sorting, bagging, and distributing the food to the Chinatown community.
This year, 2023, marks the tenth anniversary of Dennis Diekmann’s Investiture in the Order of Malta. He came to the Order at the invitation of Richard “Dick” Hotaling, KM (1931-2019). In 1994, Dennis and his wife Maureen organized a church fundraising dinner and auction. The highlight of “A Night in Paris” included an auction for a trip to France on the anniversary of the Normandy invasion. Msgr. Clement Connolly, who led the excursion, included on the itinerary a visit to Our Lady of Lourdes. While the Diekmanns didn’t go to France, Richard and his wife Elizabeth “Bitsy” Hotaling, DM, did, and the Diekmanns and Hotalings became fast friends.
The first time Richard Hotaling invited Dennis to discern for the Order of Malta, Dennis was balancing a career and a family that included three very young children, “At the time, I felt I couldn’t give it my all because of family and work commitments. But in 2011, Dick asked me again, and with my children grown, I was ready.”
All Knights and Dames are required to make a Pilgrimage to Lourdes. But for Dennis, the Pilgrimage was to be profound. More than six and half decades earlier, his mother, Ottilia Diekmann, nearing the end of her life, visited the Grotto. Dennis, who was just five years old, recalled, “It was my mother’s greatest wish to go to Lourdes, despite her doctors’ advice not to travel – she was already very weak and her cancer had metastasized to her spine.”
Ottilia Diekmann, in an account of her Pilgrimage for St. Joseph’s Magazine (Sept. 1956) said, “Lourdes loomed as the most coveted and most improbable trip of my life.” But with the help of Al, Dennis’s father, and encouragement of family, friends, fellow parishioners, and the Sisters who taught her sons, she realized her miracle. “Lourdes cannot be described,” she said. “It must be experienced. It’s an atmosphere, almost a state of mind. It’s a world apart from the rest of the world. There prayer becomes effortless.”
During her Pilgrimage, she was aided by two American couples and another from Australia. “Over the years, I have read the article about my mother’s Pilgrimage to Lourdes about 100 times,” said Dennis. “I was awed by the caring and kindness of the three couples -- all strangers -- who came together to help my parents during their stay. With all this in mind, on the first night I arrived in Lourdes, I went to the Grotto alone. There I was filled with the presence of my parents – so close were they to my heart. Right then, I knew this was my calling, I was meant to be in the Order of Malta.”
On his second Pilgrimage, Dennis enlisted as volunteers his brother-in-law Tim Shannon, KM, later to become president of the Order of Malta Mobile Ministries, and his friend Michael Barrett, KM, who is active in Texas and Rhode Island, where he now resides.
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The Order of Malta Mobile Ministries was founded in 2019 by Tim Shannon, president; Mike Psomas, KM, secretary, and Dennis Diekmann. A signature work of the Order of Malta, its mission is to deliver food and services to the nation’s poorest communities – now seven vans and growing. “The leaders in its creation were Tim and Mike,” said Dennis. “Tim had the drive to work through the issues and Mike, as LA Location president, put his considerable talents of leadership and persuasion to obtain funding for the first van. I was there, as I am now, in a supporting role. I like to work with my hands, I’m the fellow on the street – it’s where I can make a difference.”
Each month, the LA van delivers more than 40,000 pounds of food to needy communities in Southern California. During the fall and winter, the van also sets up pop-up flu vaccine clinics and distributes new winter jackets.
“The need is greater than ever,” said Tim Shannon. “Inflation and the rising cost of living in the LA area makes it harder and harder for families to make ends meet. We encourage members and volunteers to join us – we especially need drivers. With everyone’s help, we can serve even more families in need.”
After the morning’s delivery and “driving back home in my own car,” said Dennis, “I can hardly describe the joy and fulfillment I have for the privilege of helping others.” He remembers a passage from the nearly 70-year-old St. Joseph article. After learning that her cancer was terminal at the Mayo Clinic, Ottilia returned by train to California to Al, Jerome, Gordon, and little Dennis. As she stepped down from the train, she looked back and saw that “strangers waved to me,” faces showing a “universal attitude of concern that makes brothers of all men.”
“I hold my mother’s words close to my heart,” said Dennis, “that we are brothers of all men.”