Former pastor of Livonia parish who went on to lead Montana, Washington dioceses was a down-to-earth, caring pastor, friends say

LIVONIA — The east-side boy hawking copies of The Detroit Times reveals the man Seattle Archbishop Alexander Brunett became. For nine years, as his classmates slept, a young Alex was up before dawn, making a 90-minute city bus ride to Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

The second of 14 children, his family couldn’t afford to pay seminary “room and board.’’ So the son of a master plumber commuted as a day student from 1946 until 1955, when Cardinal Edward Mooney decided to send the bright 21-year-old to Rome to complete his studies.

“He used to tell us, ‘I get to read my books on the city transit system,’’’ Archbishop Brunett’s classmate, Fr. John Leo Phalen, recalled at a memorial Mass for Archbishop Brunett, who died Jan. 31, at St. Aidan Parish in Livonia, where he served as pastor from 1973-91. “You never heard him complain. Never a complaint. He was a good and great man. He loved being a priest wherever he was. He loved to serve people.’’

Bishop George Thomas of Las Vegas, who served as an auxiliary bishop of Seattle from 2000-04, called Archbishop Brunett “a living conundrum,’’ who was “seemingly extroverted yet painfully shy, rough-hewn yet cultured, humorous and ponderous, thick-skinned and vulnerable, conciliatory while contentious, personally frugal yet generous beyond description.’’

As a boy, Archbishop Brunett attended St. Ambrose Parish, on the border of Grosse Pointe Park and Detroit. He spent the rest of his 86 years reaching across religious and cultural boundaries, spearheading ecumenical and interfaith efforts, even being initiated into the Blackfoot tribe that named him “Holy Eagle Feather.”

Archbishop Brunett, who was the founding pastor of St. Aidan Parish in Livonia and led the parish from 1973-91, never forget his Detroit roots or his former parishioners, friends said. (CNS photo | Archdiocese of Seattle)

St. Aidan, the church Archbishop Brunett helped design and build, was packed Sunday for the memorial Mass with friends, family and parishioners. 

“He saved me,” said Diane Eriksen, a former parishioner now living in South Lyon. “He was like a father to me.”

Remembering the archbishop as a father figure who always saw the good in others, she brushed back tears recalling how he inspired her and her family. She remembers his words that took her into Catholic publishing, “If you can just redirect your passion toward the Church.”

David DuMont, who has remained in the St. Aidan community since the mid-1980s, remembers parishioners following then-Msgr. Brunett to the National Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak in 1991. But soon after, he became a bishop, moving westward.

The archbishop returned home for visits in the years he became bishop of Helena, Montana (1994-97), and archbishop of Seattle (1997-2010). But he never forgot his Michigan family. DuMont was astounded that “when the bishop came back, he still knew the names of all five of my children — by name —  and he asked me about each one of them. He had a great memory. He was such a blessed guy.”

Fr. Ronald Kurzawa, St. Aidan’s pastor from 2002-08, celebrated the Mass, explaining the current pastor, Fr. Kevin Thomas, couldn’t be there because his own brother had just passed away.

“He was a prince —  an absolute prince,’’ said Judy Hale, a parishioner since 1967. “He gave me this medal. He took it off and gave it to me.”

Eugenia Gorecki returned to her old parish to honor her former pastor, beaming as she remembered him advising her to keep an eye on her children when they were invited to attend a nearby Presbyterian summer camp.

Now a trustee for the Orchard Lake Polish Mission, Gorecki remembered arranging several Polish dinners to help then-Fr. Brunett. He motivated many to do more.

“We all wanted to be his favorite nephew,” his nephew Dan said. “He was one of 14 children plus two more who died at birth. I myself have eight now.”

Friends, family, well-wishers and former parishioners crowd into St. Aidan Church for a memorial Mass on Feb. 23. (Photo by Joseph Serwarch | Special to Detroit Catholic)

He remembered coming to St. Aidan, with other relatives, to help his uncle build the church, but was especially fond of remembering the old family homestead on Newport Street being packed with relatives up and down the stairs as their archbishop uncle came home to celebrate Mass in the old house.

In Seattle, Archbishop Brunett grew the Catholic Community Services into what former Washington Gov. Gary Locke called “the conscience of Washington state’’ while creating the Fulcrum Foundation, which would ensure Catholic schools would remain “solvent, accessible and affordable’’ for generations to come.

“He was downtown a long time, but everything he did, he wanted us to get involved with,’’ Fr. Phalen said, adding the two were part of a quartet of lifelong friends known as “the Four Fathers’’ (though two would serve as bishops). Jesus sent disciples out “two by two,” and those friendships among the four helped the fathers bring out the best in each other.

Fr. Phalen, 89, chuckled over the wealthy Seattle benefactor and daily Massgoer who bought and offered up a rough Seattle neighborhood and gave it to the church. He “always had a little smile’’ when he told his visiting priest friends they could stay in one of the apartments that had been transformed from bordello to church property.

“When he was building this church, we had to come and see it,’’ Fr. Phalen said. “He had to be nice and orderly to explain why he did things a certain way…”

The parish includes an outer lobby fireplace to bring out the warmth of a loving home and parishioners easily flow from the chapel into a big community gathering space. Every detail of the design could be tied to something biblical.

“He always liked to greet people out in front,” Fr. Phalen added. “If somebody else was having the Mass, he liked to be out front and if people came late, he gave them one of those terrible frowns. And if you tried to leave church early, he’d go out there and let you know that that’s improper. He liked things done right…

“But the Gospel today about loving your enemy reminds us he never gave up on interdenominational things,” Fr. Phalen added. “He did as much as he possibly could, but he never considered himself perfect … Alex would love all of us to say, ‘Love your enemies as I have tried to do.’”