In 2018, Fr. Thomas Brundage told the Catholic Herald that the best advice he had ever received was that “it is better to leave an assignment a little too early rather than a little too late.”
“I have followed that advice,” he said at the time.
But those who know and love Fr. Brundage, especially his parishioners at St. Jerome in Oconomowoc, where he served as pastor for almost six years, would agree that his last assignment ended far too early. Fr. Brundage died Friday, Jan. 15, at the age of 58. He had been on medical leave from the parish since November.
Fr. Brundage was born on Oct. 15, 1962, the fifth child of Marie and James Brundage, in Milwaukee. Throughout his childhood, he lived in England and Spain and graduated from Marquette University High School, going on to study journalism and pre-law at Marquette University.
Fr. Brundage entered the seminary while still in college, where he met the future Bishop Donald Hying. The two would share a friendship that lasted until Fr. Brundage’s death.
“God used him in many powerful ways,” said Bishop Hying of his lifelong friend. “One thing I’ll always be grateful to him for — when we were still in college seminary, we went to the Trappist monastery in Iowa. I’ve gone back there ever since and it’s kind of become my spiritual home. But it was his interest in the Trappists that really led me to study the Trappist way of life, read Thomas Merton and really come to a deeper sense of prayer.”
Fr. Brundage was ordained to the priesthood on May 20, 1988. His first assignment was at St. Gregory the Great Parish. In 1990, he embarked on graduate studies at the Catholic University of America, where he would achieve his licentiate in canon law two years later. He returned to Milwaukee in 1995, when he was appointed as Judicial Vicar; he was just 32 years old at the time.
“Being Judicial Vicar was a tough assignment,” Fr. Brundage told the Catholic Herald years later. “I dealt a lot with annulments but I was in this position when the sex abuse allegations were pouring in. I had to work on several cases and, in retrospect, being as young as I was, it was especially tough.”
While remaining Judicial Vicar, he was appointed as part-time administrator at Holy Family in Cudahy in 1999; in 2001, he became pastor at Ss. Peter and Paul Parish in Milwaukee, while still remaining Judicial Vicar.
Knowing of his journalism studies in college, then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan asked him to serve as the interim executive editor and associate publisher for the Milwaukee Catholic Press Apostolate, which includes the Catholic Herald, from 2003-05.
In 2006, Fr. Brundage was released to the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska. His first encounter with the state had occurred in 1999, when he was asked by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to serve on a team auditing the tribunal in Anchorage.
“Something inside of me came alive,” he said of his first glimpse of the state. “I felt that I had seen home for the first time. I fell in love with the place.”
While in Alaska, Fr. Brundage served two remote parishes, St. Michael in Palmer and Holy Family in Glenallen. He also served as the Judicial Vicar for the Archdiocese of Anchorage and was active in prison ministry.
In 2015, he returned to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to serve as the pastor of St. Jerome in Oconomowoc.
Though his love of Alaska endured, Fr. Brundage nevertheless enthusiastically devoted himself to the community at St. Jerome, parishioners say. He founded a new Altar Server Guild, he led an international pilgrimage to Europe and he spearheaded a sense of inclusivity at the parish, always looking for ways to make the church accessible to those on the margins. He also encouraged vocations to the priesthood and diaconate and, under his leadership, St. Jerome became a teaching parish to a number of seminarians.
“Many times he confided to me that he knew that he had the best parish in the entire archdiocese,” said Lydia LoCoco, who worked with Fr. Brundage as the managing director of St. Jerome for four years. “He felt it had some of the very best parishioners that he had ever known, and when I would ask him about his plans in the future, he would always simply say that he had no other choice but to stay at St. Jerome’s — no other parish would be able to compare.”
“Even as a quieter person, he still looked for ways to create new opportunities for community for us, both at the parish level and with the children,” said parish trustee Melissa Packee. “He encouraged people to be with each other. That really helped our community grow, and grow together.”
“He was very good with the people at St. Jerome and cared very much about them,” said Lynn Hacker, administrative assistant in St. Jerome’s financial department. Hacker described Fr. Brundage as a quiet, introspective person who was able to express profound ideas without very many words. “We loved what my family called his ‘boom’ homilies,” she said. “His homilies were sometimes succinct and got to the point without having to say too much. He would get up and say what he needed to say and then, as he would start walking away, my family and I would look at each other and go ‘boom.’ He always got his point across.”
Since the time of Fr. Brundage’s medical leave in November, Fr. Jerry Herda has served as the parish’s temporary administrator and will continue to do so.
A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated on Saturday, Jan. 23, at St. Jerome, 995 S. Silver Lake St. Concelebrants will include Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, Bishop Donald Hying, Fr. Jerry Herda, Fr. Rob Kroll, S.J., and Fr. Jim Lobacz.