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‘Is this how I’m going to die, Lord?’

Priest prayed the Rosary while being airlifted after near-fatal crash

By Roxane Salonen

Reprinted with permission from National Catholic Registry

Father Dale Kinzler emerges from the church without assistance after leading the Stations of the Cross on March 29, 2022, at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Jessie, North Dakota, just two miles west of the accident site. Contributed photo by Larry Ressler

It took just seconds for the near-fatal crash to happen, an hour to extract him from his car, and another 45 minutes to transport Father Dale Kinzler to a Fargo hospital to fix his mangled legs.

Somehow, despite having come three feet from death, as he later figured it, this rural North Dakota priest had the presence of mind, while in the air and likely in a semi-conscious state, to remember the Rosary, praying it with his fingers for beads.

“It was on Sept. 14, 2021, and what I call providential happenstance,” says Father Dale, as most know him, “being on what we observe, in the Catholic Church, the Feast of the Holy Cross.”

The admonition that, as Christians, we must take up Jesus’ cross daily, and how that phrase relates, hasn’t been lost on this priest.

After distributing Holy Communion at a nursing home, Father Dale was driving to one of his four rural parishes when the semi coming in the opposite direction seemed to run a stop sign.

A photo of his car shared on social media in days following caused many to proclaim his escape a miracle. How could anyone have emerged from such a twisted, crunched vehicle?

Details of the Near-Deadly Day

The priest was traveling east on a rural highway when the large rig suddenly began lunging toward him. He quickly realized he couldn’t take the ditch. “I saw myself sliding straight under the trailer, and in a split second, I wondered, ‘Is this how I’m going to die, Lord? I’m not ready yet!’”

Father Dale broke hard as the rear wheels of the trailer met with his vehicle, crushing the front edge of his engine compartment, dragging the car, spinning clockwise into the ditch.

He could hear the windshield cracking as his face and left knee slammed against a door. “The centrifugal force threw me against the driver-side door, which popped open,” he said.

The priest suffered a torn left quad tendon and knee, and fracture of his right leg, which was “broken in half,” with the bone protruding. But his spine was spared, despite his chest smashing against the steering wheel, causing him to sound “like a braying donkey” as he gasped for breath.

Father Dale Kinzler’s 2004 Oldsmobile Alero, given to him by his parents, sits on a flatbed tow truck in Cooperstown, North Dakota, on Sept. 14, 2021, the day of the accident. Contributed photo

The Aftermath

A nearby soybean farmer called 911, and within minutes, a rescue team arrived to extract Father Dale. A local sheriff stalled traffic on either side while a nurse talked to him, keeping him from slipping into unconsciousness.

During the Life Flight, Father Dale began to do what he does whenever he feels anxious, like at the dentist’s office. “I was just trying to keep my mind off the pain,” he said of the Hail Marys that got him through.

A few days later, seeing the photo of the mangled car, his brother, Don, realized the severity of the accident. “I couldn’t tell if it was the front or rear, it was so smashed,” he said. “When a car accident involves a semi, it usually does not end well for the car.”

He couldn’t help but wonder if his brother, an avid bike rider and marathon runner, even at 72, would walk again.

The Recovery

Just a couple days later, Father Dale was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital, where Don observed his “can do” attitude as he progressed from wheelchair to walker to cane.

“And now, to see him without a cane,” he said. “He was accepting and never discouraged. He very much took it, literally, a step at a time,” following doctor and therapist orders “to a tee.”

Chris and Gina Ahlers paid a visit to Father Dale during his recovery. Contributed photo

Don said his brother has never done anything halfway. When he needed to collect insects for a biology class many years ago, he learned to sew so he could use the type of net recommended by entomologists.

“He’s very persistent and determined,” Don said. “Dale was the one who taught the rest of us how to use computers when they first came out.”

His spiritual fortitude complements these attributes. In recovery, Don says, his brother was adamant about following God’s will, detaching from his own. “I think it’s wonderful for someone in their 70s to have that childlike openness to, ‘What has God got planned for me now?’”

It’s given Don a new perspective, too. “When something like this happens, whether it’s your brother who’s a priest, or your own pastor, you realize things can really change in a hurry,” and to not take others for granted.

Returning to Mass

After collecting Father Dale’s personal items from the accident scene, Greg Hazard, lay director for St. George’s Catholic Church in Cooperstown, began preparing for his return, arranging for meals, home healthcare and a suitable vehicle.

He also helped make accessibility changes to the parish and rectory for the priest, who was eager to return to celebrating Mass.

Amazingly, Hazard noted, Father Dale has been offering Mass again since Oct. 31, 2021, with the help of a chair that could be adjusted for height.

Through the parish’s Knights of Columbus council, Hazard also helped build a ramp to “roll (his wheelchair) in and out of the rectory,” with Father Dale pledging he’d “do this myself soon.”

“He can walk faster than I can now,” Hazard said, noting how well he’s healed.

Walking Alongside

Chris and Gina Ahlers became close friends with Father Dale through Marriage Encounter ministry. They’d been texting him the morning of the accident, so it seemed surreal learning his life was in jeopardy.

Father Dale leading Thanksgiving Day mass about a year after the accident. Contributed photo

“It was one of those moments where my world just kind of froze,” Gina said.

The Ahlers readied themselves to help lift their friend’s spirits during his stay not far from their home. “He’s the type of person who never sat in one place for very long, and now he’s going to be lying in bed all day, every day, for weeks,” Chris says.

They began doing Wal-Mart runs, bringing him homemade food and delivering the morning paper, knowing Father Dale enjoys doing crossword puzzles.

Soon, he shared with them his ideas for a book, “Three Feet from Death,” Chris said, noting that he was “already moving toward how blessed he was to be alive,” and seeking God’s revised plan.

“His recovery is almost as astonishing as what his car looked like,” Gina said, noting that they are the ones most blessed. “Six months ago, this man was in one of the worst car accidents ever, and now, here he is, walking ...”

“He really is Superman,” she added, revealing their new nickname for him. “We get to be completely amazed, share the joy, and just be proud of this man we love.”

Walking Forward

Father Dale says a true miracle would have been him walking away from the accident. Instead, he was invited to share more deeply in Christ’s suffering.

He also said he’s developed a greater compassion for others confined physically. “Many bear a cross much greater than mine.”

But in late March, his physical therapy ended, and he’s already been out on the golf course, riding his exercise bike and elliptical, and hoping to participate in a bike ride later this month.

Recalling St. Paul being “knocked off his horse” on the road to Damascus, he added, “This has served as a great wakeup call, to remember what we need to be urgently serious about in our spiritual lives.”

Celebrating Easter Mass last spring, Father Dale was undoubtedly aware of his own “resurrection.”

“At Easter, we look at the great miracle that Jesus Christ gave us by rising from the dead, making it possible for us to rise to live with him forever,” he said. “That certainly has hit home to me, and I hope that each of us will recognize how our call to eternal life is what God is all about for us.”

This article was republished with permission from the National Catholic Register. The article, written by Roxane Salonen, was originally published on April 21, 2022, © 2023 EWTN News, Inc.

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