Leading priest reflects on Alaska church before departing

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After nine years of service to the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Father Tom Brundage, pastor of St. Andrew Church in Eagle River, will return to his home in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee on June 18.

On loan to the Anchorage Archdiocese since 2006, Father Brundage has been a close advisor to Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz and has maintained a number of important leadership roles during his Alaska tenure.

His duties have included streamlining and overseeing the Tribunal Office which deals with annulment cases, church disciplinary procedures and training for safe environment in all parishes, schools, outreaches and offices of the archdiocese.

In addition he has served on Archbishop Schwietz’s senior advisory council, as associate publisher of the Catholic Anchor and liaison to the secular media, and he has lead one of the oldest churches in the archdiocese — St. Michael Church in Palmer — as well as one of the largest parishes in the archdiocese — St. Andrew Church in Eagle River.

Father Brundage was also instrumental in developing and expanding prison ministry

Ordained to the priesthood in 1988, Father Tom Brundage served the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for 18 years before heading north to serve the Archdiocese of Anchorage. He returns back to his home diocese after Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki requested that he take the reins of a large church there.

Before his departure the Catholic Anchor asked Father Brundage to reflect on his time serving the church in Alaska and share insights he has gleaned about one of the northern-most outreaches of the Catholic Church.

 

What initially inspired you to seek permission to serve in Alaska?

 

I guess it was love at first sight! I loved every part of the Alaskan experience and felt called to serve here. It took seven years to convince the archbishop of Milwaukee to release me for service in Alaska

 

At that time did you ever imagine that you would be here for the next decade?

 

I saw the needs of the Anchorage Archdiocese and had a pretty good idea that this was not going to be a two-year assignment. When then Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan visited in the summer of 2007, he saw first hand that the needs of the church here were large. He extended my time as has his successor Archbishop Listecki.

 

Speaking from a pastoral perspective, what did you find to be the most rewarding or inspiring during your ministry in Alaska?

 

Two things, prison ministry and the SPRED (Special Religious Education for those with developmental disabilities). Both ministries, while distinctly different, had one thing in common — they both involved reaching out to communities of people often hidden, but who are nevertheless created by God. We know that God never forgets any of his creations. While the inmates were in prison for their crimes, those people with developmental challenges also face prejudice and judgmentalism in our society. God never throws out any human being. Good, bad, abled or disabled — God never throws anyone away.

 

What did you find to be the most challenging and difficult?

 

The lack of resources. St. Andrew’s has been a great parish assignment but we have been hampered by lack of staff, lack of classroom space and not having a parish school. Twenty years from now, these should all be a reality.

 

You were very active in expanding the prison ministry in Palmer. Why was that so important to you and what will you take away from this experience?

 

Everyone has a story and most of us are just a couple of poor choices away from being a prisoner. I cannot judge them, as I have never walked in their shoes.

 

What advice do you have for priests who are thinking of spending a few years serving the church in Alaska?

 

Be prepared for the unexpected, be very flexible, and never forget that we are servants in ministry.

 

How did your view of the Catholic Church in Alaska change during your time here? What preconceptions were dispelled?

 

What caught me off guard in the Last Frontier was how developed the Catholic Church is here. The parish I am going to in Wisconsin has almost all the same organizations as does St. Andrew’s. The Catholics here are tenacious for their faith and they faithfully love the church.

 

What do you see as the most pressing needs of the church here?

 

Qualified priests, religious, deacons and lay pastoral ministers.

 

In terms of the priesthood, what are the biggest challenges of being a priest in Alaska?

 

I think just the lack of priests and the lack of the mutually supportive forums.

 

In general terms, how would you characterize the church in Alaska as compared to the Lower-48?

 

The main difference would be that of a young missionary church in Alaska with plenty of room to expand and in the Lower 48, particularly in the Midwest and East Coast where there is an overbuilt superstructure where closings of parishes and other institutions are a present reality.

 

What is the occasion for your departure from Alaska?

 

Mainly that it is time. I have been here for nine years but actually starting out in 1999 with short-term visits to provide canonical assistance for the Archdiocese of Anchorage. Also, some family considerations are a factor.

 

Can you tell us about your new assignment?

 

Archbishop Listecki has appointed me as administrator of St. Jerome Parish in Oconomowoc, Wis. It is a recently built church and school with a lot of parallels with St. Andrew’s in Eagle River.

 

What will you miss about Alaska?

 

A lot of things, the beauty of the state, its mountains and its missionary character. Because of the lack of priests, I think there is a greater appreciation for access to the sacraments as well. Many of the villages of Alaska may go weeks or more without Mass. This creates a hunger for the sacraments that is refreshing.

 

Do you have plans to return to Alaska?

 

I stopped trying to predict the future a long time ago.


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