When Fr. Thomas Brundage first flew into Anchorage, Alaska, in March 1999, he knew this was where God was calling him to serve as a priest.
Asked by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to conduct an audit of the Anchorage tribunal, Fr. Brundage, along with two others, was sent to examine the archdiocese’s procedures as a way to help then-Archbishop Francis T. Hurley retire from the archdiocese. Not an easy feat for the three-man team.
As pilots landed their plane, Fr. Brundage was struck with a peculiar thought as they wove carefully toward the tarmac.
“The strangest thing happened,” the Milwaukee native remembered. “The plane has to circle to get into Anchorage over the city. All of a sudden it was the first time in my life I had this overwhelming feeling that I was at home.”
Seven years later, he was invited by Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz and given permission by Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, to serve there again.
“I think partially it’s because the church is young and it’s a missionary church, and it’s a growing church,” Fr. Brundage explained about why he’s so taken with Alaska. “In the Rust Belt states – including Wisconsin – we’re dealing with a lot of closing and a lot of merging of church institutions. As long as I’ve been involved, (the Archdiocese of Anchorage) has never closed or merged anything. We’ve added parishes the last couple of years, so there is something very exciting about being part of a church that is growing fairly rapidly.”
Just like ‘Northern Exposure’
Years after he was assigned to the Archdiocese of Anchorage in 2006 as judicial vicar, canon lawyer, moderator of the curia and pastor of St. Michael Parish, Palmer, about 45 minutes northeast of Anchorage, and Holy Family Parish, Glennallen, about 250 miles outside of Anchorage, Fr. Brundage has but one lament when it comes to his time there.
“My one big regret about going out there four years ago was that I didn’t keep a journal from day one. I just have had so many experiences. Like for instance, I watched the series ‘Northern Exposure’ before I went out there, and discovered that it actually was fairly accurate. There’s somebody in my town who matches every single person in that show, and it’s just so weird how that happened,” he laughed about the town’s resemblance to the popular television show that ran on CBS from 1990 to 1995.
Since his first visit, Fr. Brundage has discovered much not only about the state in which he serves, but also about himself. One of six children, he attended Marquette University High School and Marquette University. After attending Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, he was ordained May 20, 1988, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee, and served in two Milwaukee parishes – St. Gregory the Great (1988-1990); and SS. Peter and Paul (2001-2006).
He received his licentiate in canon law from The Catholic University of America in 1992, and then served as a judge in the tribunal for the next three years. In 1995, Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland appointed him judicial vicar for the archdiocese – a postion in which he served until 2003. At that time, Archbishop Dolan appointed him associate publisher and executive editor of the Catholic Herald, where he served for more than two years.
Future he never imagined
When asked how a Milwaukee East Sider could end up in what is commonly known as “The Last Frontier” – a state that only last year celebrated its 50th anniversary of statehood – Fr. Brundage admits it’s a future he never imagined for himself. From snow-covered mountains to clear-water beaches, Fr. Brundage has adapted to all types of terrain.
“I do spend a lot of time in the truck, and you’re allowed to use studded tires, which makes traction much easier for the drive,” Fr. Brundage explained about the winter weather.
“It’s highly recommended to have the whole back of your truck with nothing but survival supplies. Basically, three days if you were to suddenly break down some place, you need to have enough to supply yourself for three days, so I have everything (I) need from logs for a fire, and sticks, and sleeping bags, a shot gun. You do need it,” he laughed.
Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city, and sits at the base of the Chugach Mountains along the coast of Cook Inlet, in the south-central part of the state. It is home to a population of 400,000 Alaskans, only a little more than 32,000 of whom are Catholics. There are eight parishes in the Anchorage area, and 13 parishes and missions in the rural parts of the archdiocese. Many are accessible only by airplane or boat since the road system in Alaska is rough, according to Fr. Brundage.
“The priesthood ministry is very different because we’re more one-on-one with people,” he said. “We do not have large staffs; we have a very small chancery, we have a very small paid staff at my parish, so it means I’m doing baptismal preparation. I have the couple and myself and the baby, we sit around a table and spend an hour or two talking about faith and baptism, and what it means, and then it makes the ceremony when it comes time to baptize the baby so much more personable, because I had a relationship with these people.”
Severe weather conditions for most of the year also have an impact upon his work.
“(The parish in) Glennallen, which is my second parish, it’s very much bush Alaska,” he explained. “The conditions are very rough and it’s a very small community, about 25 families in the church. But, there are people who would drive up to 70 miles just to go to church, so I’m very happy to do what I can over there.”
Priest shortage poses problems
In addition to the tough terrain, the limited number of archdiocesan priests has posed problems.
“We only have 11 priests that actually belong to the archdiocese, (and) there are 30 who are actually serving in the archdiocese,” he explained. “A Filipino priest, who is the pastor in the island of Kodiak, went back to the Philippians a couple of months ago to visit his family, and he didn’t check his visa. He was not able to return to the United States for another six months, so it means that we have to shift people around.”
According to Fr. Brundage, the biggest catechetical need he’s discovered in Alaska is within the prison system. Palmer Correctional Center is a minimum and medium security prison in Palmer and is home to more than 550 inmates. At the request of Anchorage Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz, the priest looked for ways to bring Catholicism into the prison.
When he first tried to meet with prisoners, he received an “unwelcoming” response.
“The Alaskan penal system, just like the lower 48 (states), is by and large in the jowls of the Evangelicals,” he explained. “They’re the only game in there and it’s been a huge thing to have a Catholic presence. There have been forces out there that have tried very hard to keep me out of there.”
Transporting wine for Communion turned out to be a huge obstacle for Fr. Brundage.
“After being berated for 10 minutes by the second in command of the prison, I was able to later on show them that even on their Web page (it) lists the procedure for bringing in wine for those churches that use wine, and the founders of the constitution would be turning over in their graves knowing that a denomination would have to change the way they worshiped that day, because of state officials.”
After much discussion and apologies from state officials, he entered and celebrated Mass.
Is regular presence in prison
Fr. Brundage and his associate pastor, Fr. Nelson Marilag, celebrate weekly Mass at the prison, spend one-on-one time with prisoners, listen to confessions, pass out rosaries and reading materials, and, since last November, conduct a nightly Wednesday study group to explore Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”
“We still run into some hostility in the prison system. For instance, the prison I go to has a religious program run by the Evangelical church called the TLC program, and it’s an excellent program,” he said, adding that many who take the program do not come back as repeat offenders. “But part of what they have to do is attend one church service a weekend, and I go out on Saturday morning and celebrate a Sunday Mass for the inmates, and I’ve been told that a Catholic Mass doesn’t qualify as a church service, and I asked why and they said it was too short,” he laughed.
“In the list of Corporal Works (of Mercy), there could be so many things on the list of Jesus; why would visiting prisoners be important?” he said, repeating a question once asked of him. “All of a sudden it was one of those times where I didn’t even know that I knew the answer; it just seemed so obvious that when God put on flesh as Jesus Christ, he became a prisoner. He became a prisoner of the flesh. He bound himself to the flesh.
“People sometimes ask why this is important,” he said regarding prison ministry. “Well, almost all these men will be on the streets again, and the best we can do to change their hearts and minds and patterns of behavior, the safer everybody is going to be and the better off everybody is going to be. I’ve seen some of these men go through profound spiritual changes.”
During his time as administrator of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee – between the installation of Archbishop Dolan as archbishop of New York and the installation of Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki as archbishop of Milwaukee — Bishop William P. Callahan approved Fr. Brundage’s service in Alaska until 2011. As for the rest of his future, the priest is leaving it up to God.
Fr. Brundage’s sister is a devout Catholic with eight children whom she and her husband homeschool in their home in southern Illinois. All under the age of 13, the concern has come up many times about what would happen to them if anything should happen to her and her husband, who is currently in remission from leukemia.
“She reminds me every now and then that in her legal documents that if both of them die at the same time, I get the kids. My life would be completely over at that time, so whenever I see them I check their tires and their vehicle and make sure it’s good, and that they’re taking their vitamins and stuff like that,” he laughed.