Larry Brixius reflects on 40 years in priesthood
At the tender age of 14, Larry Brixius decided he wanted to devote his life to the church.
"I told the priest before I told my parents," recalled Brixius, who grew up on the family farm near Wells, the oldest of six children. "He was coaching baseball, and we were on our way back from a game. I was the last one in his car, and I told him, 'I think I want to be a priest.'"
The priest helped Brixius break the news to his parents, and he was soon on his way to seminary in LaCrosse, Wis.-- straight out of grade school.
"It was not the norm to go at 14," Brixius said. "I'm called a lifer. There are not too many lifers around anymore. ... The first year was tough. At the end of that year, I told myself I wasn't coming back. It was too lonely. But the next year I went back again and continued on. It's amazing how the Lord guides you along in spite of yourself."
Brixius spent four years studying in LaCrosse, then headed upstream for another four years in Winona and completed his seminary training with another four years in St. Paul.
"I was going against the current and still do," he said with a laugh.
A Mass of Thanksgiving for the 40th anniversary of Brixius' ordination will be celebrated on June 1 at St. Mary's. He was ordained June 1, 1968, by Bishop Edward Fitzgerald. In preparation for the event, Brixius has spent some time reflecting on a career that has taken him to parishes across southern Minnesota and also to South America.
The first assignment for Brixius was a two-month temporary stint at St. Catherine's in Luverne. It was short, but memorable, Brixius said.
"It was like going to a foreign country," he said. "The pastor, Mick Doyle, was from Ireland, and his brogue was so thick, I couldn't understand him. Then I was sent to Rochester, which was the last place I wanted to go. Being a farm boy, I didn't want to go to the big city."
Heading back to the southwest corner again, Brixius landed in the then-dual parish of Adrian and Ellsworth, where under the tutelage of a "very liberal priest" he "learned a lot about being connected to people." After 15 months, he was sent to the Polish parish of St. Stanislaus in Winona.
"That's where I got involved in Worldwide Marriage Encounter," Brixius noted. "I was involved with that for 20 years, leading weekends, in executive leadership in the state and national level. It was a real grace getting to know couples and about the grace of marriage, their whole life journey together. I gained a lot of self-confidence in that process."
From 1977 to 1981, Brixius was assigned to St. Theodore's in Albert Lea and the nearby parish in Twin Lakes, which he called his "best experience as an associate."
"It was my first real exposure to the Hispanic community," he said. "I think it was the fourth largest Hispanic community at the time. The migrants came there to work in the asparagus fields."
Looking for a change, Brixius trained as a certified chaplain and worked at St. Marys Hospital in Rochester from 1981 to 1983.
"It's a different lifestyle, a different kind of ministry," he acknowledged. "It's very hard, because there's this constant changeover, and I couldn't build any ongoing relationships."
Brixius chose to give up his chaplaincy slot for someone else who was interested in the field and became pastor at Sacred Heart in Brewster and St. Mary's in Dundee, serving there from 1983 to 1987.
"They were two small rural parishes, and it was delightful," Brixius recalled. "They say you always remember your first pastor experience."
In 1986, Brixius took a trip to Colombia, South America. He had previously visited Guatemala in the 1970s, and this second southern trip ignited an interest in the mission field. In the meantime, while he was deciding how to approach the bishop about his desire to go into missions, Brixius was transferred to St. Ann's in Slayton, also serving St. Columba in Iona and later St. Mary's in Lake Wilson. When the bishop granted his request, Brixius went for training in 1990 in Maryknoll, N.Y., and then flew to Bolivia for five months of intensive language training.
"I worked in Riberalta, Bolivia, which is in the northeast corner, not too far from the border of Brazil," he explained. "We worked as a team, going up and down the rivers, tributaries of the Amazon, to the villages in the rainforest. Especially during Lent and Advent, we'd go out, three boats at the same time, and celebrate the sacraments. When we were not traveling the rivers, we'd have classes to train people to be leaders in the community, and we'd have services every Sunday and radio programs twice a week.
"The last year I was there -- 1994 -- we were on a river trip just before Easter, and I came down with malaria. We spent all night going back down the river to Riberalta, because they didn't know what I had, and there was a hospital there."
Brixius suffered several relapses of malaria and other physical ailments that cut his mission contract a bit short.
"It wore me out," he said. "In that sense, I was ready to come home. I was physically kind of shot."
Upon his return, Brixius was appointed vicar of Hispanic ministry for the Diocese of Winona, a job that took him to many parishes, including Worthington, where he would celebrate Mass in Spanish and evaluate the Spanish ministry programs.
"I thought I'd go to Latin America and then come back and work with the migrants," he reflected. "I came back, and there were Hispanics living everywhere. That's how God works. You have an idea, and God sees down the road what's going to happen."
From 1996 to 1999, Brixius was in St. James, then moved to Worthington, where he has been pastor for the past nine years.
"That's twice as long as any other place," he noted. "Before I came here, I'd been a priest for 31 years and been 11 different places. I averaged three years in a place. ... After all this running around, I'm going to settle down a while."
Knowing that St. Mary's had significant needs for Spanish ministry, Brixius contacted Sister Karen Thein, who had served in Guatemala for 15 years and had been working in Sioux City and Marshalltown, Iowa. She joined the St. Mary's ministry team about a month after Brixius arrived and focuses her efforts on the Spanish community.
"Back then, we'd have 125 people at Spanish Mass. We have 450 to 500 for every Mass now," Brixius noted, explaining that he preaches the sermon each week in both languages. "It's basically the same sermon. I've been amazed, coming back, that the language has stayed. I don't have the facility that Sister Karen does, but I can get by."
Brixius feels that sermons are one of his strengths in ministry.
"God has used me as being a good preacher, and I love scripture. It's always been one of my loves, ever since seminary. Also my ability to listen attentively to people -- I'm a natural listener. I'm just poor in follow-up and details," he said with a grin. "Before I went to seminary, I hated talking in front of people, and I never volunteered in class. But God gave me the grace, when it was the last thing I wanted to do."
As he's looked back on his ministry career, including some time recently spent on retreat, Brixius has been in awe of the blessings and people that God has brought into his life.
"There's a deep awareness of how God has been moving through the entire thing, guiding me to go where I wouldn't choose to go," he said. "It increases your trust in how God works.
"It's been fun to look back over the 40 years and think, 'Holy mackerel -- I did all that!?' It's been an amazing journey, and preparing for my 40th, reflecting on all these years, I can see the hand of God, and I'm grateful for it all. There have been lots of amazing people -- how they've touched my life, and I've hopefully touched theirs in some good ways, too. It's just been a marvelous journey."
The Mass of Thanksgiving for the Rev. Larry Brixius' 40th anniversary will be at noon June 1 at St. Mary's Catholic Church, Worthington. An open house luncheon will follow at St. Mary's School with a program at 3 p.m.