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October 11, 2009

He understands ‘darkest hour’ Father Van Dyke, who has four children, felt called to the priesthood following the death of his wife

By Dolores Madlener



Father Neil Van Dyke, pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Stickney, stands outside his parish rectory. He was a husband and father before his life turned upside down. Grace led him on a new path through his sorrow. Catholic New World/Karen Callaway

He is: Father Neil Van Dyke, pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Stickney. Late vocation. Born in 1940, ordained at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, Mundelein, in 1998.

Early years: “As a kid at St. Angela School, I was an altar server. Mass was still in Latin. Priesthood had occurred to me back then. In fact I was going to go to Quigley but changed plans at the last moment.” He went to Austin High School in Chicago instead, and took some courses at Wright Junior College. He went into the trades and became a plumber.

Turn in the road: “While I was still a plumber’s apprentice in 1961, I joined the Peace Corps. It was there in South America where I met my wife-to-be. We were married in a little town called Chimbote in Peru in 1963. Mary Lee was a nurse from Syracuse, N.Y. When she became pregnant we returned to Chicago, living in Our Lady Help of Christians Parish.”

Eventually they bought a home in St. Mary’s Parish in Riverside. “We had a son and then two girls and then we adopted an Native American child.”

A new path: “In 1985 my wife and I went through the training to be a married deacon. She was very supportive.” His ministry in the parish was with the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

“When our children were out of school Mary Lee worked as a nurse at MacNeal Hospital until she became ill. She even started an Old Testament Bible study with the resident physicians, including Jewish doctors.”

Dark cloud: “My wife was diagnosed with ALS [Lou Gehrig’s Disease] in January 1993, and died in March 1993. It was a blessing for her. So she’s been in heaven for quite a while now. The children were young adults at the time. Our youngest was 23.”

Call to priesthood: “The person most instrumental in my becoming a priest, (aside from the example of a lot of priests as I was growing up) was Father Jack Wall. He was at a funeral at St. Mary’s and I was the deacon. A young girl had died. In his moving homily he said we all had a part in getting her to heaven. I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do with my life — be with people in their darkest hour and help them.’ That afternoon I went to my pastor and told him I wanted to be a priest. He connected me with a couple people and a year later I was in the seminary.”

And his children? “The children were happy when I told them there wasn’t going to be another ‘Mom.’ They were very supportive my four years in the seminary. If I hadn’t been a married deacon, I don’t know if I could have gone from someone in the pews to priesthood. That would have been too big a jump.

But having been through the studies and been in the pulpit preaching, it was a smoother transition. The seminary said they didn’t want me to lose my vocation because of academics.” He didn’t find the courses beyond his ability. “I kept on going. Because I really wanted it.”

After 11 years: “In the parishes where I’ve served, people have been receptive to my background.” At St. Pius X they even accept he’s a Cubs fan on the South Side. “It’s a lonely life. My family doesn’t live far, so I can go and pester them on my day off. I cooked when I was married. But I was always cooking for six. Now I scale that down to one.”

Gratitude: “I want to say I am so thankful that God called me to this vocation. After my wife died I had no idea what I was going to do. It has fulfilled my life.”