Living the call of presence

May 1, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, is International Religious Brothers Day. To commemorate it, we share the following profile of one of our own Dehonian brothers: Br. Brian Tompkins, SCJ. Originally from the Canadian Region, Br. Brian, 62, has been a member of the US Province for several years. He lives and ministers at Sacred Heart at Monastery Lake.

“Do small things with great love”

Br. Brian

When asked to describe his vocational call, Br. Brian Tompkins reflects on the words of Mother Teresa:

“Do small things with great love.”

“That’s what I feel that I am called to do, who I am called to be,” said Br. Brian. “I really feel it.”

He lives that call as a religious brother with the Priests of the Sacred Heart (Dehonians). Originally from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Br. Brian first thought about a vocation as a young boy.

“But it was in the way that any young child would think about a vocation,” he said. “I was a boy, so that meant being a priest.” After church on Sundays Br. Brian would get out his mother’s linens, a goblet and plate from the china cabinet, set up an altar on a small desk and play priest.

“I took it quite seriously,” he laughed.

Childhood games remained in childhood, as did Br. Brian’s thoughts about the priesthood. Life went on. After high school he entered the university but didn’t feel that he was in the right place. He left, went to cosmetology school and began a nearly 20-year career in the industry.

Much of what he did then is similar to what he does now: Br. Brian is present to people. He listens to them, he cares about them.

“I’ve always felt called to be present to people,” he said.  “My heart breaks for people who are hurting or sick.”

Br. Brian goes over details of the day with SHML staff

He says that he long felt the call of “presence,” but as a child and young adult was too shy and introverted to live it as a ministry. Curiously, it was working in a hair salon that gave him the confidence and courage to approach others.

Eventually, he realized that he also had the courage and confidence to pursue the vocational call that he felt years earlier.

At the age of 42, Br. Brian enrolled in Christ the King Seminary in British Columbia. Operated by the Benedictines, the seminary allows students to enroll without sponsorship of a diocese or religious community. Br. Brian was one of those students, using his time in the seminary as part of his initial discernment process. As an older student, he said that it was a challenging transition but that “basically, it was a very happy four years.” He remains friends with several of the men with whom he studied.

Br. Brian graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and then considered his options. Several of the Benedictine monks suggested that he pursue his vocation with their community, but after living the Rule of St. Benedict for four years, he realized that it wasn’t where he was being called.

He made inquiries with dioceses and religious communities but heard little response. Perhaps, he thought, it was his age. And then he saw a flyer from the Canadian Region of the Priests of the Sacred Heart. He called the number listed and had a short conversation with a member of the Toronto community who basically said, “Fill out the paperwork and we will see what happens.”

He did, and eventually was invited to spend a week at the community house in Toronto. “It was a good week,” said Br. Brian. “It was a way of religious life that was different than the Benedictine monks; I felt very comfortable.”

Liturgy planning with one of the SHML residents

By 2004 he was living as an SCJ candidate at Resurrection of Our Lord parish in Ottawa, which the region then served, and studying theology at St. Paul University. “I loved, loved, LOVED IT,” said Br. Brian. He enjoyed being with parishioners, being present to members of Resurrection of Our Lord. He still considered himself an introvert, but in the ministry of presence he easily reached out to others.

In 2006 Br. Brian entered the novitiate. He joined novices in the US Province; Fr. John Czyzynski, SCJ, was his novice master. He appreciated the opportunity to get to know the congregation and its history, and the US Province as well. He professed his first vows in 2007. He was 50 years old.

Br. Brian entered the novitiate still considering a path to priesthood. “Basically, it was what I knew.” After vows he went to St. Augustine Seminary in Toronto, where he earned his master’s degree in theology. It was during that time that he realized that what he was truly called to was religious life, not necessarily the priesthood. He professed his final vows in 2011 as a Dehonian religious brother.

What remain unchanged in his call was a desire to be present to others, especially the elderly. He thrived in his CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) and in volunteer work at a larger senior residence in suburban Toronto. At the time, a Canadian SCJ with Parkinson’s disease lived at the center. When visiting him, Br. Brian noticed the need for volunteers and so he offered to help.

“I loved to visit with the residents, I loved to be with them on their daily journey,” said Br. Brian. “I remember one woman who was so lively and busy when I first started; she loved to read and have conversations on a variety of topics. I continued to be with her as she entered into dementia. At the end she didn’t know who I was, but I felt that it was a comfort for her that I was there, to be a steady presence in her life.”

He enjoyed what he was doing, but he didn’t consider it a ministry. To him, it was simply volunteering.

Celebrating his jubilee of vows in 2017

Looking for a change of pace, he spent the summer of 2008 at Villa Maria. This was the senior community for retired SCJs in Hales Corners prior to the construction of Sacred Heart at Monastery Lake. At the end of the six weeks, Fr. Jim Brackin, SCJ, then superior of the community, told him that there would always be a place for him there.

Br. Brian went back to Canada but Fr. Jim’s words stayed with him. He spoke to his superiors and they said that if he was needed in Hales Corners to assist with the senior religious, they were open to him going. He would continue to serve the community, just in another entity.

However, there was one caveat: Br. Brian would have to learn to drive. Sacred Heart at Monastery Lake is beyond public transportation. One of his tasks with the community would be to assist senior SCJs in getting to doctors’ offices and other appointments.

Br. Brian started his lessons in Toronto with a friend and then continued in Hales Corners with a professional driving instructor. He passed his driver’s test; his sister bought him a GPS to celebrate.

The move to SHML was shortly after the new wing for lay residents opened. Br. Brian soon put together a core group of lay residents to plan liturgies in the main chapel, Holy Hours, weekly recitation of the rosary and other events. In his day-to-day contacts he continued to do the ministry to which he had always felt called: presence, being present to others.

It is the same ministry that he does within the SCJ community, including helping people with some of the small daily tasks that many take for granted. Br. Brian shared the story of helping a SCJ senior who needed to have a salve applied to his feet.

“That is very humbling for you to do that,” said the SCJ, who is now confined to a wheelchair and unable to do the task himself.

“I didn’t think of it as humbling at all,” said Br. Brian. “It is just a small thing, but one that can be done with great love.”

It is the vocation of presence that Br. Brian continues to live each day as a Dehonian brother.