from TRG article 10-17-2012 Dean Lesar
Since Fr. Roman Kaiser passed away in September 2008, Loyal’s St. Anthony Catholic Parish has seen a small parade of priests come and go. Fr. Steve Brice hopes to be able to slow down that revolving rectory door, and return some stability to a congregation that is looking for some.
Fr. Brice, in late June, became St. Anthony’s fourth priest in the last four years, which was a whirlwind turnover for a congregation that worshipped under the leadership of the beloved Fr. Kaiser for the previous 19. But as the La Crosse Diocese has been shifting clergy from parish to parish in an effort to meet a long-term shortage of priests, the Loyal parish has been one that’s been forced to cope with change. That may well be ending now, Fr. Brice says, as his instructions from above (La Crosse, not Heaven) are to return the cohesiveness to the parish in Loyal and prepare it for changes that are likely to come.
Fr. Brice celebrated his first Mass in Loyal in early July and since that time has been meeting parishioners, overseeing the ongoing operation of the church’s school, and regaining his own sense of life in a small town. For the past 18 years, Fr. Brice was the head pastor at St. Ann’s Parish in Wausau, an assignment that involved him in a wide array of administrative roles he won’t have to be concerned with in Loyal. It will be nice, he said, to first be a pastor to the people again.
A Pittsville native, Fr. Brice was ordained in 1982, and was first assigned to St. John’s in Marshfield for four years. He then spent another four years at Holy Trinity in La Crosse while also teaching at Aquinas High School. From the city on the Mississippi he was transferred to a village on Highway 13 -- Spencer -- where he served as pastor of Christ the King for two years while also instructing at Marshfield Columbus. In 1994, the bishop called him to Wausau.
Fr. Brice said the Diocesean plan for rotating priests among parishes generally operates on a 6-year cycle, with few priests stationed in one parish for more than two 6-year terms.
“There are some exceptions,” Fr. Brice said, and he was one of them. Allowed to work and grow with St. Ann’s parish for 18 years, he said he knew at some point the stability he came to know would end. In the latest round of priest transfers designed to meet future congregational needs in a time of shrinking clergy rosters, Fr. Brice, too, was called to change.
“I came home one night and there was a message on the phone,” he said. Bishop William Callahan had presented him with a list of parishes where he was needed, and they eventually agreed Loyal was the best fit. He succeeds Fr. Keith Kitzhaber, a temporary fill-in since last summer who has now been placed at Holary Rosary in Owen. Fr. Kitzhaber replaced Fr. Bill Felix, who was supposed to have been on a 6-year assignment in Loyal, “but other things came up” and he was moved elsewhere. Fr. Felix succeeded Fr. Jerome Naduvathaniyil, a priest from India who returned to the seminary after a year in Loyal.
Fr. Brice was part of a larger plan of sliding priests into congregations where they can be of the most service, for the longest time. Long-term plans for St. Anthony’s are such that a priest with experience was seen as the best fit.
“With Bishop Callahan, it’s been a very different process,” Fr. Brice said. “He and his personnel board are really trying to get people in the right place.”
At issue for the La Crosse Diocese and most others in the country is a persistent priest shortage and a decline in new ordinations. As older clergymen retire, less are coming forth to replace them. Fr. Brice said the current plan is based on a “worst case scenario” in which all eligible senior priests would retire and foreign priests on loan from abroad would be called back to their native countries.
“If that happens, the Diocese is prepared to go from 169 parishes to 75,” Fr. Brice said. “In that overall master plan, Loyal, Greenwood and Willard would become one parish in the future. That could be precipitated by a number of things. On the other hand, if we had a bunch of new ordinations, that would not be the case.”
As St. Anthony parishioners know, priests from foreign countries have been helping American churches deal with the priest shortage. Fr. Jerome served the parish for more than a year before being sent away for further education. While the presence of foreign priests has eased the situation and given American church-goers new perspectives on their faith, Fr. Brice said the American Catholic church hierarchy knows it has to be prepared to meet its future needs on its own.
“The foreign priests are on loan and could be called home at any time,” Fr. Brice said. “There’s a sense in the Diocese that loaner priests can’t be the solution for the long term. There’s a significant underlying reason why we can’t produce our own clergy. We’re really tapping a precious resource from other countries.”
St. Ann’s parish in Wausau included about 1,700 households, Fr. Brice said, compared to the roughly 440 families in the St. Anthony community. A major difference for him in Loyal will be the ability to give more one-on-one ministry to his congregants.
Fr. Brice said he was talking recently to a family member of a different denomination who had an ill relative. The person said the sick one’s minister was able to visit every day, which is a perk of being in a smaller parish.
“Every day -- that’s something I just couldn’t do in Wausau,” Fr. Brice said. “One thing I’m looking forward to about life in Loyal is being much more a pastor and less an administrator. My role here is to be a hands-on pastor to the people of the parish.”
At St. Ann’s, Fr. Brice was not just the priest who said Mass each Sunday but the manager of a church staff, a board member of a city-wide parochial school system, and an involved member of community efforts. St. Ann’s also hosted the Wausau’s Hmong community.
At St. Anthony, Fr. Brice will have more time to tend to individuals’ needs and to the local school. He’ll be working with the K-6 students regularly as well as the Confirmation classes. Continuation of the school’s mission will be a focus for him.
“It’s a dynamite place,” he said of the school. “I’m very, very impressed with the staff and how happy the kids are to be there. I certainly want to do everything in my power to see that the school continues to flourish.”
He’ll also be prepared to tend to larger issues for the church, including the possibility someday of a combined Loyal-Greenwood-Willard unit.
“If the time comes to work through this parish merger, it will be a significant part of my ministry,” he said.
Fr. Brice also realizes a significant part of his job is to restore the congregation’s continuity.
“I’m very aware of the need for stability in the parish, and that suits me just fine,” he said. “I would hope to be here for six to 12 years.”
Fr. Brice thinks some Loyal parishioners may have left the church due to the continual changes in leadership.
“The significant changes in styles of leadership and pastors that they’ve had has meant some have kind of drifted away,” he said. “I’d like to send them an invitation to come back and check us out. The church is the people of God and everybody in it has significant talents to share. We need everybody’s gifts and talent to make this community vital and alive. I’m watching and listening and learning to find out what is going on here. I come to create an atmosphere of trust and openness and then watch to see what the Holy Spirit gives birth to in the midst of this community.”
Just as a congregation relies on stability from its pastor, so, too, Fr. Brice has learned, does a priest become settled in one place. He was fortunate, he said, to be stationed in Wausau for as long as he was, as few priests so settle in one spot for so long. Alas, he said, it had to end.
“I had lived longer in Wausau than anyplace at any time of my life,” Fr. Brice said. “It’s as much home as I’ve ever had in the world. I felt loved there and there were many people I loved there ... but I knew inside it would just not happen that I’d be there my entire life.”
There is a positive side to moving, he added.
“It does keep us honest,” he said. “Are we in this for our own comfort or for the service to the church? We have no permanent kingdom in this world.”
Plus, Fr. Brice said, Loyal is an inviting community which has accepted him with open arms.
“I’ve had a tremendously warm welcome here from people,” he said. “It’s a community where people still know each other. It’s a much closer-connected community and that’s a wonderful thing. There’s an unpretentious sense about people. Nobody’s flashing their brand-name clothes or expensive cars trying to impress people with who they are. I’ve got a sense that everybody’s on equal ground here and I like that very, very much. I can tell there have been great pastors here in the past because our children have a great attitude toward priests. I also received the warmest welcome from the other pastors in town.”