By Mary and Judith Costello
For The Catholic Messenger
“In 1988 I attempted to escape from Vietnam and was caught by the communist police,” remembers Father Hai Duc Dinh. He was sent to prison and then to a forced labor camp for a year. After he was released, he had to report his whereabouts to the local authorities.
Then 26, he accepted a job working for his older brother. Two years later, when the government wanted to show more openness to the world, four of his family members moved to the United States. In 1996, Fr. Dinh also immigrated without difficulty.
But the story begins in 1962, when Fr. Dinh was born into a Catholic family in Saigon,” he said in an interview. The war had been going on for several years but in the South there were no restrictions on freedom. After the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, the communists took over and restrictions began.
The Catholic faith was always important to his family, but Catholic schools didn’t exist where he was growing up and seminaries were closed by the government in 1975. During that time, Dinh joined the choir which was popular at his church. But the government made restrictions. “One year we were getting ready to sing for Christmas Eve. Fifty people were going to sing but the local authorities said only 20 could stand up. I stood up and sang.”
When he arrived in the U.S. at age 34, he “hadn’t thought about being a priest at all.” The late Msgr. Marvin Mottet called him to consider a vocation. At that time, Dinh was working at IBP/Tyson in Joslin, Ill., and at Chefs Hat in Bettendorf and a Dominos Pizza outlet. Father Joseph Khan, then-parochial vicar of the Vietnamese community, invited the younger man to Vietnamese Mass at Christ the King Chapel on St. Ambrose University campus, Davenport. Msgr. Mottet was working toward bringing the Vietnamese Catholic community to a more permanent home at Sacred Heart Cathedral.
He invited Dinh to a St. Andrew’s Project dinner with the bishop to meet priests and hear about their vocations. Msgr. Mottet and the Sacred Heart Vocation Committee called for priests to identify possible candidates to invite to this special dinner with the bishop.
Dinh later spoke with Father Chuck Adam, who was diocesan vocations director, and with Bishop William Franklin, who supported his vocation. Fr. Dinh was ordained in 2008.
“Two-and-a-half years after I was ordained, I was told I had cancer — non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I went to my room and talked to no one for three days. I was sure I was going to die.”
But the new priest did talk to God. He decided that God must have a plan for him and so he left his worries with the Lord. He believes that God heard his pleas and healed him.
“I went through six months of chemotherapy. The people at St. Paul the Apostle Church (in Davenport) said I looked like a monk with my bald head. The doctors were surprised at my recovery. God was there.”
Fr. Dinh served at St. Paul the Apostle for three years and then at Sacred Heart Cathedral for five years. Sacred Heart has hosted the Vietnamese community since 2001. The priest enjoyed serving his fellow countrymen while at Sacred Heart and continues to do so when he can. But he also enjoys serving all of God’s people, he says.
He now serves in Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish in Muscatine and St. Joseph Parish in Columbus Junction, both of which have large Hispanic populations. “So, I am learning Spanish and saying Mass in that language.” He said he is “so very happy to be a priest.” His face radiates the joy he feels in his vocation.