A new adventure, this time in South Dakota!

Fr. Thi with altar servers

“I love living here!”

“Here” is Yankton, SD, and the quote is from Fr. Thi Pham, SCJ. After completing a year-long sabbatical ending in July, Fr. Thi unpacked his bags at St. Benedict’s parish rectory in Yankton, where he now lives with Fr. Tom Anderson, a diocesan priest of Sioux Falls. Fr. Tom is pastor of St. Benedict and Sacred Heart parishes. Also on the ministerial team is another diocesan priest, Fr. Robert Lacey. He and Fr. Thi are associate pastors to the two parishes.

Fr. Thi’s journey to South Dakota literally took him all over the country. Pursuing his love for the outdoors, much of Fr. Thi’s sabbatical year was spent hiking and camping. His first contact with the bishop of Sioux Falls was on a Zoom call at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The call was the result of an earlier conversation with Fr. Ed Kilianski, SCJ.  Fr. Thi told Fr. Ed that he was interested in ministry in South Dakota, a place that he only knew from summer assignments when he was a seminarian.

During his phone call with the bishop, Fr. Thi learned that there was a need for a priest in Yankton. Was he interested?

Fr. Thi getting ready to kayak on one of his sabbatical adventures

“Where the hell is Yankton?” was the first thought that popped into Fr. Thi’s head. But soon he was rerouting his trip home from the Grand Canyon to allow for a stop in Yankton to take a look around.

His first impression? “Oh Lord, I really liked it,” he said. “I had such a warm welcome; I immediately liked the parishes.”

Yankton is a small town along the Missouri River, about 150 miles southeast of Chamberlain (also on the Missouri). Chamberlain is home to St. Joseph’s Indian School and the nearest SCJ community to Yankton. “It’s good that I like to drive,” said Fr. Thi, who goes to Chamberlain for community meetings but then leaves early “to avoid hitting the deer on the way home. I’ve done that and don’t want to do it again!”

St. Benedict and Sacred Heart are Yankton’s only Catholic parishes. Sacred Heart was established in the mid-1960s and is made up primarily of older residents descended from German and Czech immigrants. It has about 1,200 families. St. Benedict is smaller, with approximately 800 young families, including many children. The two share a school with campuses on each site. Grades pre-K to 4 go to St. Benedict; grades 5-8 go to Sacred Heart. There are about 400 students total. Every other week Fr. Thi teaches a religious ed class at the school.

Fr. Thi has been involved in parish ministry before, most recently in northern Mississippi. He spent seven years on the Northwest Mississippi Pastoral Team, several of those years as team moderator. In the summer of 2020, he went on sabbatical.

What does Fr. Thi miss about Mississippi? He mentioned the people, the many parishioners whom he came to know. But he also spoke with pride about the projects and activities of which he had been a part. Three churches were remodeled when Fr. Thi was on the pastoral team. As team moderator, he was very active with these and other projects. “I enjoyed being a part of the process and seeing the plans outlined on paper become a reality.”

In Mississippi Fr. Thi also loved to cook –  not just for his religious community, but for hundreds of people at parish banquets and events. In Yankton, he has put his chef’s hat back on, often cooking for himself and area priests, as well as for fundraisers. He recently auctioned himself off to cook a meal for the highest bidder. Proceeds went to the parishes’ schools.

Fr. Thi laughed while talking about parishioners in Yankton who asked if he would be able to find ingredients for some of his favorite foods. Although he is from Vietnam, Fr. Thi was raised in the United States. “People assume that my favorite foods are Vietnamese,” he said, “but I love beef!”

So he is right at home in South Dakota where people often share gifts of locally raised or freshly hunted meat and fowl. The recipients of his auction dinner were served a full course meal featuring Beef Wellington.

Fr. Thi at the entrance to Denail. He said that his love for the outdoors was inspired by Fr. Jerry Schaad, who rode his bicycle from Wisconsin to Alaska and back.

A quick note about that trip to the Grand Canyon, as well as many of the other outdoor adventures that Fr. Thi enjoyed on his sabbatical. He credits an SCJ priest for his love of the outdoors: Fr. Jerry Schaad. Provincial Treasurer for many years, Fr. Schaad died in 2001, almost 20 years after celebrating his 25th jubilee of religious life by riding a bicycle from Hales Corners, WI, to Hyder, Alaska… and back!

“Fr. Schaad made a big impact on me,” said Fr. Thi. “We would do puzzles together in the recreation room when I was staying at Sacred Heart Monastery, and he would tell me stories about his cycling trips. That stayed with me. I think it was what first interested me in bicycling, camping and other outdoor activities.”

And perhaps one of the reasons why Fr. Thi found himself jumping from rock to rock in the Grand Canyon last summer, trying to get cell phone reception for his Zoom call with the bishop of Sioux Falls, a call that led to a new adventure in a small South Dakota town that – until a few months ago – he had never heard of.

PICTURED AT THE TOP OF THE PAGE: Fr. Greg Schill, SCJ (chaplain at St. Joseph’s Indian School, he had also served on the SCJs’ pastoral team in northern Mississippi), Bishop Donald E. De Grood of Sioux Falls, and Fr. Thi.