David Allen Dingwall was born in the small Vancouver Island town of Duncan, B.C., on Dec. 26, 1962. He was the first-born child of Donald, a Scottish newspaperman, and Margaret, a lifelong member of the Anglican Church of Canada.
The Dingwalls were always ardent churchgoers—Donald’s brother was an Anglican pastor. From an early age, religion fascinated David. When he was five, his cousin noticed him offering his cup around the table on a family trip, mimicking a priest giving communion.
After David’s sister Barbara—his only sibling—was born, the Dingwalls left Duncan for Vancouver. There, David and Barbara joined their mother as regular volunteers and participants in Anglican youth groups. Religion was always central to David’s life. But in high school, he seemed set on following his father’s career path. “He was quite seriously thinking about journalism,” Barbara says. After graduation, he enrolled in Vancouver’s Langara College. He soon transferred to the University of Victoria, where he completed an honours degree in history.
David spent his university summers working as a cook at Camp Artaban, an Anglican youth camp on B.C.’s Gambier Island. He had a reputation there for wisdom beyond his years, says his friend Maria Denholme. He also loved to pull pranks. One favourite involved loudly dropping a box of broken plates and bowls, then chasing his kitchen staff—who were in on the joke—at knifepoint into the dining room, yelling at them for smashing his dishes.
It was during the Artaban years that David decided to join the clergy. After graduating from UVic, he pursued a master’s of divinity at the College of Emmanuel and St. Chad in Saskatoon. Then, at just 25, he was appointed to the isolated Anglican parish in Alert Bay, B.C. David’s years in Alert Bay, a primarily First Nations community ravished by poverty and abuse, were both difficult and formative. “There were family friends who were clergy who were annoyed at the bishop for appointing him there,” says Barbara. He spent three years in the community and emerged with an enhanced sense of his duty as a priest to treat everyone with dignity and respect.
After Alert Bay, David moved on to a series of larger parishes in B.C. In 1997, he was working in Cranbrook, when he met Brenda Dodier, a single mother from Virginia, on an online dating site for Christians. The two hit it off—Brenda says she was drawn both to his intense desire to care for others and his irrepressible goofiness— and after an extended courtship, they married. Brenda and her two boys moved to Canada. Not long after, a third son, Ian, was born.
In 2003, the family moved back to the U.S., where Brenda had been offered an engineering job at a NASA facility in Virginia. For the first year, David stayed at home, taking care of the kids. For a time, he considered giving up the ministry entirely. But he was soon drawn back in. In 2005, he was offered the post of rector at Saint Paul’s by the Sea, an Episcopal church, in Ocean City, Md.
David didn’t look much like a typical priest. He had an earring. He favoured loud Hawaiian shirts. He habitually wore orange Crocs. “He was silly all the time,” says Brenda. But he used that silliness to good effect, she says. He could break down barriers with it and talk with anyone, the homeless, the wealthy, the young and the old, as if they were equals.
In early November, someone, likely a homeless man trying to stay warm, started a small fire in a bucket outside Saint Paul’s. The flames got out of control and burned a hole through the church’s deck. The damage was limited. But in his sermon the next weekend, David asked his congregation to consider what might have happened if things had been worse, how they would have coped if the church had been destroyed. He urged them to remember that, no matter what came, God would be with them.
Two weeks later, on Nov. 26, John Sterner, a homeless man with a history of minor drug arrests, doused himself with gasoline, lit himself on fire and ran into the food bank in the church basement. The flames quickly spread. They gutted the building, killed Sterner and badly injured a church volunteer. David, who was on the second floor, suffered severe burns and smoke inhalation. He was rushed to hospital, where he died later that day. He was one month shy of his 51st birthday.