University of Portland photo
Br. Donald Stabrowski, left, shares a laugh with Fr. Chet Prusynski at University of Portland.
University of Portland photo
Br. Donald Stabrowski, left, shares a laugh with Fr. Chet Prusynski at University of Portland.
People not in the know still ask Holy Cross Brother Donald Stabrowski when he's planning to be ordained.

Brother Donald, 69-year-old provost at the University of Portland, chuckles amiably. He's been a religious brother for more than 50 years and has no other plan. He loves the life he's chosen.

"The religious life is the same for the priests and brothers," he says. "It's the ministry we pick that's different."

Brothers are non-ordained members of religious orders, male counterparts to religious sisters. They profess vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but, like any lay person, do not preside over sacraments. Once a common part of Catholic life, the brotherhood has waned severely.     

There are about 80 religious brothers in Oregon. That compares with about 300 priests and 400 religious sisters in the state. Nationwide, there are about 4,700 brothers, about a tenth of the number of priests. In 2003, there were 5,600 brothers in the U.S.; in 1965, there were 12,000.   

Brother Donald grew up in northwest Indiana, where the Congregation of Holy Cross is a hub of the culture. Holy Cross brothers taught him in high school. With priests and brothers cooperating, the religious community ran Notre Dame and Holy Cross Junior College. When residents wanted to buy produce, they went to St. Joseph Farm, operated by the brothers.   

Young Donald admired his teachers and when they encouraged him to join them, he did, at age 18. "They were happy people," he recalls.  

In the mid-1970s, Brother Donald was named principal of a Chicago high school that had 27 brothers on the faculty.  

Now one of UP's top administrators, he intends to work as long as he's useful. "I've never had an assignment I didn't like," he says.  

Brother Donald is one of a long line of highly educated teaching brothers. The Congregation of Holy Cross also is home to working brothers, men who tend the grounds, cook, build and farm.  

There are salty stories about Holy Cross brothers at the University of Portland, including Brother Wilfred, who ran the campus steam plant from 1902 to 1933. A gruff man with a thick German accent, relished burning as little wood and oil as possible, to the chagrin of shivering students.

The congregation has declared the Year of the Brother from now until October 2012. Leaders have begun recruiting men — with or without college degrees — who want to serve the church as brothers.   

Priests tend to be defined by their sacramental ministry. Brothers, by contrast, have a more open mission.

+++

At hilltop Mount Angel Abbey, 52-year-old Brother Cyril Drnjevic is a former Peace Corps volunteer who has schooled curious reporters, tended the library, written history, taught seminarians, trained new monks and led retreat ministries for married couples and priests alike. His latest project is offering retreats for deacon couples, a ministry that is booked well into 2013.  

"It's a life of wonderful challenges," says Brother Cyril, a Benedictine monk for more than 25 years. "One could lament, 'I'm not a priest. I can't do this, I can't do that.' But the truth is, it opens up certain doors."

Whereas people tend to have preconceived notions about priests, religious brothers tend to be taken more as they are, Brother Cyril explains.  

A Portland native, he served the Peace Corps in Liberia and discerned his vocation there.

"If we are living our vocation well, or any vocation, we need to build community," Brother Cyril says. "That's doing the Lord's work."

+++

In a small house in Southeast Portland, Franciscan Brother Robert Rodriguez helps prepare young friars for communal life and ministry. Part of the time, he's on a council that guides the western province of Franciscans.

He sees young Franciscans choosing non-ordained life more and more. The province is evenly split between priests and brothers.

"Francis was not ordained," explains Brother Robert. "Our Franciscan charism is the brother's charism. As a brother, I can be the bridge between the person and the priest and the bridge between the person and the church. I've always felt I've done my best work walking with people on the other side of the altar."

Brother Robert, 51, entered the Franciscans in 1978 and earned a master's degree in theology. He has served as a parish religious education director and was catechetics chief for the Archdiocese of Portland for six years. He also has taught catechetics and ministry formation at Mount Angel Abbey.  

Taught by Holy Family Sisters in San Francisco, he was drawn to their communal life and prayer, but never to sacramental ministry. "I knew I wanted to somehow serve God in community, but didn't know there were options out there," he says. His teachers guided him to the friars.

"As a brother, I really have freedom to pursue various ministries," explains Brother Robert, who hopes to serve as a retreat director more and more.

+++

Brother Martin Vu, a member of the De La Salle Christian Brothers, teaches art, photography and computers at De La Salle North Catholic High School in Portland. His uncle is a priest, and his family expected him to follow that path. But he felt an abiding desire to educate young people full time and saw clergy like his uncle serving mostly in sacramental life and parish administration.

His family was consternated when he became a brother in 1998, and they still ask when he plans to be ordained. But he senses they are slowly coming around to his vocation.    
Brother Martin advises discerning young people not so much to wait for a sign from God, but to grow in honest self-knowledge. Know what you love and what you're good at and then start exploring lots of options, he says.

Brother Martin also suggests listening to others. "God says something not directly but through people," he explains.

In addition to teaching, Brother Martin serves as his community's bookkeeper and serves on a committee forming a Vietnamese youth society at Immaculate Heart Parish.

+++

Brother Jason Parrott, a 32-year-old Carmelite friar, just finished three years of masters theological study at Mount Angel Seminary. He's serving at the San Jose, Calif. house where new friars are trained.   

When he began his own formation, Brother Jason assumed he'd become a priest. Only later did he feel a deep sense of peace when he entertained the notion of being a brother.  

"That's what God was calling me to," he says.

Raised a Lutheran in Los Angeles, he learned anti-Catholic leanings. But then his mother wanted him to attend a Catholic high school. "Mom was a cop," Brother Jason says. "She had a .45 in her purse. We just did what she said."

A religion course taught by a woman religious altered his views and led him to embrace Catholicism. Hoping himself to be a teacher, he attended the Franciscan University of Steubenville. If he felt a calling during college, it was vague at first. Then he met a young woman who was joining the Carmelites. She helped him open himself to the idea of religious life.  

After doing traveling ministry, he eventually entered the Carmelites, professing vows and taking the simple brown habit as his everyday clothing. He's already served in parishes and retreat houses and is open to what his community needs of him.