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Rev. Richard J. “Dick” Dempsey, Navy chaplain with a role in fiction, dead at 83

The Rev. Richard J. Dempsey worried that servicemen felt forgotten in the hills of Da Nang when he served as a chaplain during the Vietnam War.

It was treacherous terrain, a place of booby traps and landmines that other clergy members — those with wives and children — were reluctant to traverse.

“There were five hills nobody wanted to go to because it was very dangerous,” recalled his sister, Sr. Dorothy Dempsey.

So Father Dempsey went to the commanding officer. “Sir,” he said, “I want your permission to go to the hills.”

He went on his missions carrying a little tin box. Inside was a chalice and a paten — a plate to hold Communion wafers.

“He went because he said the men needed to know that they were important,” his sister said. “They needed to talk to someone.”

Rev. Dempsey preferred to travel by helicopter rather than by Jeep, based on the time his vehicle drove over explosives.

“The Jeep blew up, but they had sandbags on the bottom” for protection, said his brother, Donald “Duke” Dempsey. “It turned over, but he rolled far enough away.”

Rev. Dempsey, a U.S. Navy chaplain from 1967 to 1990 who rose to the rank of captain, was remembered at a Feb. 9 memorial Mass that featured the song “Anchors Aweigh.” He died Feb. 4 in Bonita Springs, Florida, where he lived with his brother during the winter. Rev. Dempsey, who, in the warmer months lived in the family home where he grew up in St. Cajetan’s parish in Beverly-Morgan Park, had developed a blood clot after knee-replacement surgery, Duke Dempsey said. He was 83.

During his military service, he tended to Marines in Vietnam, in Okinawa and at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. With the Navy, his tours of duty included the Philippines, Naval Station Great Lakes and naval communities in Monterey, California, and San Diego. He spent about two years on the “Connie” — the USS Constellation aircraft carrier.

His nickname was “Ace.” Dick Dempsey’s family says he was the model for Father Ace McNamara, a fictional character created by his friend, the Rev. Andrew Greeley, the late Chicago Sun-Times columnist and best-selling novelist. Like Father Dempsey, the character was a sunny, extroverted basketball phenom and U.S. Navy captain who served in Vietnam and studied psychology at Loyola University.

Father Richard J. “Dick” Dempsey / Provided photo
Father Richard J. “Dick” Dempsey / Provided photo

Dick Dempsey was one of eight children of Myrtle and George Dempsey, a police officer whose favorite job was being assigned close enough to Comiskey Park to hear the crowds cheer. To the Dempsey kids, the center of the world was Kennedy Park at 113th and Western. After long hours on the basketball court, Dick and his older brother, George, would buy a gallon of milk and chug the whole thing.

“We went there every day,” Duke Dempsey said. “We had no money, but we had more fun than you could shake a stick at.”

Dick Dempsey graduated from St. Cajetan’s grade school and went to Quigley Preparatory Seminary. “He always wanted to be a priest,” his brother said.

After completing his studies at Mundelein Seminary, he was assigned to the Chicago parishes of Our Lady of Grace and St. Sebastian. In 1966, then-Archbishop John Cody called him in and said the military needed chaplains, according to Duke Dempsey: “He told him to join the service, and Dick said he’d prefer not to. He said, ‘You don’t have a choice.’ ’’

Rev. Dempsey organized support groups for military families whose husbands and fathers were on tours of duty.

In 1985, he was a spokesman for his family when his brother, Msgr. Thomas Dempsey, was among hostages taken captive by terrorists on TWA Flight 847 while returning from a trip to the Holy Land and held for a two-week ordeal in Beirut. One hostage, Navy diver Robert Stethem, was shot to death and thrown onto the tarmac. The hijackers thought Thomas Dempsey — who’s now a monsignor in the Rockford Diocese — was in the military because of his khaki pants.

“Tom was trying to convince them he was a priest,” Duke Dempsey said.

Rev. Dempsey’s other assignments included Holy Family in North Chicago and St. Victor in Calumet City. In 1991, he became the pastor of Most Holy Redeemer in Evergreen Park, the site of his funeral. He was named pastor emeritus when he retired in 2003 but kept ”marryin’ and buryin’ “if friends requested it, his sister said.

He loved rooting for Notre Dame and spending time with his family, which includes three more sisters, Deanne O’Toole, Sally Dempsey and Kathleen Moyer, as well as 10 nieces and nephews and about 25 grand-nieces and grand-nephews.