Behrends: a willing spirit with an unholy schedule

WORTHINGTON -- "If someone had told me 20 years ago that I'd be a deacon someday, I would have thought they were nuts," admitted Vern Behrends, Worthington.

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WORTHINGTON - “If someone had told me 20 years ago that I’d be a deacon someday, I would have thought they were nuts,” admitted Vern Behrends, Worthington.


But time and circumstances have a way of altering a person’s life, and as of this month Behrends has been an ordained Catholic deacon within the Diocese of Winona since 2009.


“I came from a very faithful Presbyterian family, and I thank God every day for the parents I had,” said Behrends, who converted to Catholicism upon marrying his wife, Joan, 53 years ago (as of Aug. 18).



A native of rural Iona, Behrends graduated from Chandler High School and, when first married, worked for the Dairy Herd Improvement Agency as a milk tester.


“I never farmed,” he said. “My family included four boys and a girl, and both the oldest and youngest wanted to farm.


“As the middle child, I was the odd man out,” he chuckled.


Behrends continued through a series of jobs, including a stint in Luverne (at Nelson’s Department Store as a serviceman and at Van Wyhe TV) before choosing to sign on at Wilmont’s Tri-City Gas.



“I figured I wanted to do something that got me outside more,” he said.


When he began working for Great Plains Gas in 1977, the Behrends family (which had expanded to six, with three sons and a daughter) moved to Worthington.


Ultimately, Behrends returned to Tri-City Gas and retired from there in 2009.


But Behrends’ present life as a 72-year-old has little to do with his earlier career moves. When his father died unexpectedly of a heart attack 23 years ago, Behrends found himself doing some significant soul-searching.



“It got me thinking if I was on the right path, and I began looking for more ways to serve and pay back for the gifts God had given me,” Behrends reflected.


Behrends delved deeper into the practices and principles of the Roman Catholic Church, attended a lay ministry class, dug into the Bible and was accepted into the Diocese of Winona’s deacon training program.


“The year before I was ordained, I was seeking a practicum for social ministry,” he shared.


“There was an opening on the Manna Food Pantry board so I volunteered for that.”


Behrends has been a board member and volunteer there since 2008, offering regular hands-on help with unloading trucks, installing a walk-in freezer and collecting weekly food donations from Walmart.


“I’ve been doing that [picking up items] for the past year and a half each Monday,” he said.


“Monday used to be my day off,” he joked.


In his role as a Catholic deacon, Behrends is authorized to perform baptisms, weddings and funerals.


“I’m registered with the state as a minister,” he stated, noting that being a deacon is nevertheless an unpaid, volunteer position.


Additionally, Behrends assists at several masses each week, teaches pre-baptism classes and, with his wife, Joan, teaches pre-wedding classes.


“I try to visit nursing homes, too, but a lot of times I don’t get there as much as I should,” he said apologetically.


Balancing the demands of being a deacon with other aspects of his life is a constant learning process, especially when it comes to making time for everyday chores such as lawn-mowing - and, more importantly, being present for his wife and family (daughter Pam lives in Adrian, son Tim lives on the rural Iona farm where Behrends grew up, son Jay lives in Aberdeen, S.D., and son Brad owns Behrends Signworks in Worthington).


“I’ve been reminded that marriage is as much a sacrament as ordination,” laughed Behrends.


“Being a deacon has been a journey, but a good one that I’ve never regretted,” Behrends said, adding that he enjoys reading and was a 20-year member of the Southwest Bowbenders archery club.


“I realize how much God has given us, and that we can never adequately pay Him back, but we can do what’s humanly possible. When you have that transformation, that calling that God is bigger than anything else, it makes it easier to give,” he said.


Behrends feels he’s grown in empathy for other people over the past decade and finds himself adhering to the idea that service and care take priority.


“You help anybody - you don’t judge first to determine if they’re of the right color or the right faith,” he affirmed. “We’re out there to help anyone.


“There’s a guy I read - Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest in New Mexico - who wrote something like, ‘The definition of a Christian is to see Christ everywhere,’ and when you think about that, and how God has created everyone, then if we aren’t seeing Christ in everything and everyone around us, we’re not looking hard enough.”


As the only Catholic deacon west of Mankato, Behrends’ services are in constant demand.


“The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” he smiled.


So if Behrends had a superpower, he’d choose the gift of being in two places at one time.


“I don’t have that ability, but I’m going to keep going as long as my health and mental status hold out,” he expressed.


Besides his efforts for the Catholic church and at the Manna Food Pantry, Behrends’ favorite thing is spending time with his wife and family.


“My oldest grandkid is 28 and the youngest is 1, and doing things with the family, keeping up with the grandkids, is the highlight,” he said.


“Joan and I also enjoy traveling, driving the back roads.”


At some point down the line, Behrends said becoming a senior deacon might be an option, but he doesn’t anticipate that to be anytime soon.


“It’s been a great life, very fulfilling,” he confirmed. “Some days I don’t feel like I’m retired, but I do have a choice; I choose to do this, and I don’t get paid so I don’t keep track of the hours.”


For others who are willing to lend a hand for one cause or another, Behrends has a simple piece of advice.


“There are a lot of good people here in Worthington, and many who have served, but there are a lot of needs, more than we can handle, so if you want to serve, go and ask where you can help,” he advised.


“Learning by doing is the best way, and if there’s a need, investigate it - and if possible, help.”

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