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By Brandon Mattingly
Landmark News Service
One thing is certain, when Fr. Ben Brown of Holy Rosary Catholic Church and St. Catharine College decides to retire from the active ministry, no one will be able to say he hasn’t had a full career.
Celebrating 40 years as an ordained priest on May 25, Brown has seen practically every corner of the world and served in a variety of positions that have each taught him something about his faith and the faith of others along the way.
As a child, Brown had a similar upbringing to other youth in the west end of Louisville, attending a Catholic school and frequenting Fontaine Ferry Park. Following the eighth grade, Brown was among 11 of the 55 boys in his class to enroll into a minor seminary (high school and two years of college) at St. Thomas Seminary in Jefferson County. Though it was a prep seminary boarding school, Brown said he’d yet to give serious consideration to the idea of becoming a priest.
“I liked the school and I was able to manage the academics and I enjoyed the intramural sports, so each semester I went back again,” he said. “I didn’t have a mature thought about becoming a priest then because you’re a high school student.”
Following his time there, Brown took part in a two-year college outreach program, where his experience — combined with the changes made at the Second Vatican Council — led to his desire to join the priesthood.
“What I wanted to do was help people have a meaningful experience of religion, because I think it had gotten meaningless for a lot of people and for a lot of them it had become just an obligation,” Brown said. “I thought, ‘I have some creativity and I want to bring that creativity to the idea of religion and faith.’
“I think I feel a calling in retrospect,” he added. “A guy asked me one time if I thought I was born to be a priest. My answer was, ‘No, I think I grew into it.’”
Brown attributed his early interest in the priesthood to his local pastor, Bernard Kiefer, who served in his position for 35 years.
“He was loved in the community and my enduring image of him was kneeling in the sanctuary before he offered the Mass,” Brown said. “I thought, ‘This is a guy who’s in touch with Christ and who is celebrating the presence of Christ with the people he lives among.’ He was a real inspiration.”
Brown was ordained on May 25, 1974, a landmark date of sorts, as the first ordained priest in the United States was Stephen T. Badin on May 25, 1793. Brown said it’s a special connection to him since Badin at one time called home what is now known as the Loretto Motherhouse and worked in central Kentucky for many years.
Once ordained, Brown took his first assignment at St. James Church and School in Elizabethtown and later added director of seminary students to his title. Though he was intrigued at the prospect of campus ministry and opportunities at the community college, he turned his focus to parish work, landing a position at St. Thomas Church in Bardstown in 1982. He said he still considers his 11 years in Bardstown — where he even spent time as Rotary president — the highlight of his career.
“To me, that was the ideal place and that was just what priesthood meant,” he said. “You’re living in a group of people that you have a love relationship with and you’re celebrating the presence of Christ in their lives day-to-day, but also the big moments; baptisms, weddings and deaths.”
Toward the end of his assignment to St. Thomas, Brown began holding two Masses a month at the U.S. Naval Reserve Center in Louisville and in 1993, began active duty service, which he continued through 2009.
Brown was somewhat familiar with the military lifestyle, with three brothers and a sister on in the Army, and enjoyed the experience so much that he put in 16 years on the job when he was originally only required to make a three-year commitment. While he said there are similarities in parish and military ministry, the environment was often unique.
“Preparing people for baptism and doing their wedding, the counseling and instructing is all the same, but it’s a different setting,” he said. “If you’re preparing a fellow to be baptized at Easter and you’re on an (aircraft) carrier, that’s a little different than scheduling it if you’re at a parish.
“A typical baptism ceremony in combat would be that the marine or sailor would take off his helmet, lean his head over it, I’d take his canteen, say prayers and pour the water and collect it in his helmet,” Brown added.
His assignments included time in Southern California, Alaska, England, Greece and four trips to the Middle East, including being one of the first chaplains in the region following the 9/11 attacks. As the prime military base for incoming and outgoing troops in the Mediterranean, Brown said he vouched for the importance of having a pastor stationed in Crete (Greece) at all times.
“I said we needed a priest there, especially one who has been in combat, because you’ve got troops who are going in and they need their nerves settled and you’ve got troops coming out who need to talk to somebody they’ll never see again,” he said.
Though the military broadened his horizons, Brown was no stranger to the world abroad even before entering the service.
“The other way I traveled was with my hobby and that’s scuba diving,” he said. “I’ve made two dozen trips to the Caribbean, I dove in Canada under ice in February and I dove the Red Sea. I’ve been to just about every place people know about except the Great Barrier Reef.”
Brown’s visit to the Red Sea actually came on the heels of an even more exciting trip to India in 1990, where he and other rotary members were able to spend an hour with Mother Teresa herself. He still has the photo commemorating the occasion.
“Marines would come into my office and see a Super Bowl game ball, see a photo of me climbing on a rope out of a helicopter, see me shooting a Howitzer, and the photo with Mother Teresa is the one that got their attention. They would point to it and say, ‘Father, who’s that black-haired dude with Mother Teresa?’”
In all, Brown estimated that he’d been to 20 countries prior to his military service and said that number is more likely around 35 today.
Following the end of his time with the military in 2009, Brown still wanted to help veterans, but said the chaplain position with the VA was occupied and circumstances led him to St. Catharine College and Holy Rosary Parish.
“It really is serendipitous,” he said.
Upon returning home, Brown was helping a pastor in Louisville who was unable to visit a shut-in parishioner one snowy day and sent Brown in his place. The elderly lady had a daughter who was a sister at St. Catharine Motherhouse.
“By the end of that day,” Brown said, “I got a call from the daughter and she said, ‘Thanks for visiting mother. Did you know we need a campus priest?’”
Later that week, Brown met with SCC President Bill Huston, and the rest, as they say, is history. Brown was familiar with the college from his time with Rotary in Bardstown, and he said it’s been exciting to watch the campus grow in the time since. One of the neatest things of the job, he said, has been teaching students about the local history of religion, which includes St. Rose as the oldest Christian sanctuary in the Midwest.
“There was Mass going on in St. Rose Church when Abraham Lincoln was in his first year,” Brown said. “He was born Feb. 12, 1809 and Christmas of 1809 they had Mass at St. Rose in the same sanctuary that’s still there.” In 1929, priests from St. Rose established Holy Rosary Parish in the Briartown section of Springfield, where Brown is now Sarcamental Moderator. His other local role is chaplain to the Marion County Honor Guard. Since this past December, he has been putting his military experience to work as a consultant to the Veterans’ Hospital in Dayton, Ohio on a part-time basis. Through all of the roles he’s held throughout his 40 years in the priesthood, Brown said he’s come to learn that people inherently want to find meaning in their lives and some just need the right experience.
“Faith helps people keep their lives grounded and gives them a sense of orientation and meaning,” he said. “They count on people that minister to them to be genuine and honest. I would always say to the military troops that I’m chaplain to all faiths and no faiths. By and large, when I find people who say they’re agnostic or don’t have faith, it’s probably because they have had religious experiences that were less than meaningful, that were hypocritical, and that didn’t touch their lives in a meaningful way.”
Within the Archdiocese of Louisville, priests have the option at the age of 70 to enter full retirement or continue working on a year-to-year basis. Brown, who will turn 70 in 2017, said he plans to be at Holy Rosary, St. Catharine and the V.A., until that time.
Regardless of how Brown decides to use his years following his career in the priestly ministry, he is certain to make the most of them and have plenty of adventures along the way.