Father Sam at Ease a Year into Priesthood

By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune [Midvale UT]
Downloaded May 30, 2004

MIDVALE -- It's 6:30 a.m. on Monday and the Rev. Samuel Dinsdale gulps down his morning coffee and heads for early morning Mass at the Carmelite Monastery across town. There may be only six cloistered nuns and a few others there, but Father Sam can't be late.

He's in charge.

At precisely 7:30, Father Sam strolls to the front of the small chapel, kisses the altar, and leads the sleepy believers scattered around the pews in a cappella hymn-singing.

He gives his five-minute sermon -- without notes -- moving closer to the congregation and speaking to them like an old friend.

"Each day we plunge ourselves into the mysteries of the gospel," he tells them. "During this time, we can come to understand who Jesus Christ is in our lives."

He retreats behind the altar, offers prayers, intones Scripture, blesses the wafer and wine, and offers them to the nuns and other worshippers.

The service is over in 20 minutes.

Father Sam gets in his white Nissan to navigate the freeway back to his home parish, St. Therese of the Child Jesus Parish in Midvale. He drops in at his house next to the church for another cup of coffee and strokes and feeds Ferguson, his copper-colored cat, before it's off to another Mass.

Dinsdale was ordained a priest on May 29, 2003 at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. With a simple, "I do," Dinsdale agreed to a lifetime commitment to the church.

After years in seminary, where he read Kafka and Dostoevski and talked about existentialism with his priest buddies, now he's immersed in weddings and funerals, baptisms, Bible study and blessings, sermons and services, counting offerings and hearing confessions three times a week.

Where once he labored over every word in his homilies, carefully typing them on the computer, he now gives the sermons off the cuff, as if he's talking to old friends.

It's a relief, he says.

"You step out of the seminary and people aren't constantly grading and correcting you. Liturgy isn't such a performance and doing ministry becomes more natural," Father Sam says. "Even though it's only been a year, seems like I've been doing this forever."

A distant memory: St. Therese is nothing like the close-knit parish in Ogden that nurtured the 30-year-old Dinsdale. There, most of the families were middle-class professionals who stressed education and upward mobility. His parents, Luke and Georgia Dinsdale, entrusted young Sam's care to the nuns and priests of Holy Family parish and to the teachers and friends in Ogden's Catholic schools, such as St. Joseph High School, where he graduated in 1992.

St. Therese also doesn't match the idealized congregations he studied at seminary. He took classes in biblical theology; ancient, medieval and modern Catholic history; pastoral counseling; and social ethics. None of that prepared him for a mother who might want an immediate baptism for her dying baby born addicted to cocaine.

Ninety percent of St. Therese's 1,500 families are Latino, and only about a third speak English. Many are in the country illegally, and few have jobs, insurance or health benefits. Many suffer alcoholism, domestic abuse, divorce and abandonment.

Father Sam's English-speaking parishioners are mostly older immigrants in their 50s and 60s, while the Spanish-speakers are all young families with young children. They prefer Sunday's 1 p.m. Mass so they can watch Latin American soccer games on Telemundo Television in the morning. Their services are lively, rocked by guitar music with a Latin beat.

It's no wonder that at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif., ancient Latin was no longer required of priests-to-be, but Spanish was. Every new priest must have it, Father Sam says.

Yet even with his years of training, he still misses the nuances of the language.

"It's challenging to understand them and what they need," he says. "They are seeking specific answers, but I can only speak in broad generalities."

The differences go beyond language to culture.

In the United States, most Catholics struggle with their faith in a secular world. They examine spiritual issues using psychological terms. They know their priests are human and fallible.

But for these members, he says, faith is more "medieval."

"They believe in ghosts and spirits. They have a kind of magical view of the world and the priest is seen as a holy man on a pedestal," Father Sam says. "They give us so much deference. It's not healthy. I know I have let them down."

The previous priest at St. Therese and his secretary were caught stealing the church's money for gambling, yet Father Sam has heard nothing against him in the parish.

"Most of the people don't believe it," he says. "People are more likely to get angry if you are rude to them on the phone than if you stole $200,000 from them."

Setting boundaries: At Father Sam's ordination, Bishop George H. Niederauer told him that a priest's private life and personal relationships must be consistent with "the sacred actions he performs."

Alluding to more than 1,200 U.S. priests accused of sexual misconduct, Niederauer said, "They led double lives, betrayed their calling, and the church has suffered grievously for their sins."

In 2002, U.S. bishops adopted a strict zero tolerance rule for priests, and at seminary, the candidates were grilled repeatedly and warned about inappropriate sexual behavior.

Despite the large-scale media coverage of the sexual abuse scandal, Father Sam says most St. Therese parishioners are still very trusting. He works hard to maintain personal boundaries. He does not invite them to his house or socialize with them.

"I am not their friend. I am 'Father Sam,' " he says.

At confession, he hears some of their deepest secrets, problems and fears. They talk of abuse or addiction, which may have social and psychological roots, yet many Latinos attribute these conditions to the presence of "demons."

"They sometimes want an exorcism," he says. "They don't prepare you for that in seminary."

Despite Dinsdale's self-doubts, the Rev. Francisco Pires, senior pastor at St. Therese, says Father Sam is doing well with his Latino parishioners.

"He's always willing to learn, willing to blend in with the people," Pires says. "That's what matters to them."

After morning Mass at St. Therese, Father Sam stands at the door, greeting the devout by name.

"You just had a birthday, Steve?" he says to one man. "You're 82, right?"

Creating a life: Every day is different for Father Sam, though they are all well-ordered. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at the Carmelites. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays for confessions. In between, he prepares the parish bulletin, makes hospital visits and prepares lessons for his weekly Scripture classes.

He lives in a simply furnished house next to the church. He cooks for himself, tries to stay fit by running and skiing and keeps up with church issues by reading America, a Jesuit magazine, and with Americana by perusing The New Yorker. He attends a monthly support group for priests.

There are few young people like him in the parish. (The white cassock and embroidered stole at the monastery are "older than I am," he jokes.)

And no parishioners share his fondness for foreign movies. For that, he turns to his fellow priests. Next month, he will travel to Italy -- Rome, Florence and Venice -- with a friend from seminary.

Unlike priests who join religious orders such as the Franciscans, Father Sam did not take a vow of poverty. That's not to say he'll ever be wealthy.

In Salt Lake City, the average priest's salary is $7,980, according to the National Federation of Priests Council, but with other taxable income such as Mass stipends, stole fees, housing, food and other allowances/benefits (auto insurance), the total taxable income can come to about $34,296. Earlier this week, Father Sam met with a Knights of Columbus representative to lay out plans for his financial future.

For Father Sam, though, his calling brings other rewards -- such as serving his friends and family.

Last week he performed a marriage ceremony for two high school friends, and he will do that next week as well. He will also participate in an ordination for a friend from seminary.

He's still getting used to people calling him "Father Sam," especially those old enough to be his grandparents. "It would be better if they called me 'Reverend' or 'Pastor.' It doesn't have so many overtones."


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