Janna Reynolds, The Catholic Virginian

Currently residing in his grandparents’ house in King William County where he was raised, Father Robert Brownell has come full circle in his life and 50-year vocation.

The jubilarian said he “didn’t have a clue” what was in store for him when he was ordained, but he feels very gifted by the life priesthood has laid out for him.

“All my life I hoped that I would do something to make the world a tiny bit better of a place by my life,” he said. “And somehow or other, with the help of different priests I used to talk to in college, my eyes were opened to see priesthood would perhaps be a place for me to try.” 

During his junior year at VCU, Father Brownell transferred to Mount St. Mary’s College, where he spoke regularly to Father Tom Smith, his spiritual director.

“I told him, ‘You asked what do you want to do with your life?’ and I told him one thing: ‘I don’t want to be poor. I was raised poor. I watched the poverty of my grandparents, who reared me. I think what I’m studying now, I won’t be. But I want to make a difference in people’s lives,’” Father Brownell said.

The two continued talking and eventually Father Brownell told Father Smith that maybe if he got the right job and made money, he might consider becoming a religious brother.

“He picked up on that and started on ‘Why not priesthood?’ I said, ‘I’m not good enough.’ He couldn’t stop laughing,” the jubilarian recalled.

Father Brownell earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting and received a great job offer after graduation.

“I said, ‘I’m going to try the priesthood thing out, the seminary thing,’ and I did. And five years later I was ordained,” he said. “I’m glad that I took his advice. It’s been good. Difficult at times? Yes, very difficult. Overall, it’s been excellent, very excellent.”

Ordained May 24, 1969, when the Diocese of Richmond included all of Virginia, Father Brownell’s first assignment was as associate pastor of St. Leo the Great, Fairfax. 

Missionary life

Two years later he went to Venezuela to do missionary work with the Maryknoll Fathers.

Beginning in 1978, Father Brownell lived in Caracas for six years, where he worked with missionary priests from the United States and Belgium and nuns from Spain and Venezuela. 

Much of his time was spent visiting people, walking the streets and trying to encourage accompaniment. He also taught adults to read and write in Spanish.

Father Brownell recalls that the small school run by the nuns was a blessing to the children because the public school often didn’t have classes due to financial difficulties.

“It was tough in the poverty areas. Very tough,” he said. 

Bishop Walter F. Sullivan visited Father Brownell in Caracas twice. 

“He allowed me to take him around and visit people. Most of it was unpaved, dusty. He even helped with getting water. We used to get water one hour a week. He helped pass water buckets up and down the hill for people who weren’t on the water line,” the priest said. “It was a real joy to share that with him and see how interested he was in everything. That was really wonderful.” 

He returned to the diocese in 1984 and served in Richmond at St. Mary (1984), the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart (1984-1985) and Holy Rosary (1985-1988). 

In spring of 1988, Father Brownell resumed missionary work with the Maryknoll Fathers, this time in Bolivia.

He was in a “slash and burn” area where local farmers were cutting down as much vegetation as they could to make more space to grow rice, a main source of income.

Working a territory that Father Brownell said was probably half the size of Virginia, the Maryknoll team, Father Brownell and a group of nuns from Bolivia and Spain worked to “provide as much help as we could with everything.”

They assisted the nuns in running the school, provided a place for medical needs, worked with people in a co-op to help them distribute and get a better price for their rice, and did “all things dealing with a church.”

Father Brownell said there was one arched building in the territory and close to 20 chapels that sometimes were only large enough for 10-12 people. The team had to travel on paths through the woods to visit the chapels, celebrate Mass and perform burials and baptisms.

“That meant you just did the best you could,” Father Brownell said. “During the rainy season, that made it a little more difficult because you never knew if the Jeep would make it through or not.”

‘Always learning, learning, learning’

The priest recalled one instance of the Jeep getting stuck when a Maryknoll woman from Minnesota said she knew how to get it out of the mud from experiences back home, and she did.

Father Brownell remembers the woman as a wonderful person who found a child in a faraway village of 30-40 people walking on her knees due to a birth condition. The woman was able to correct some of the situation, provide braces for the child and taught her to walk upright.

“Always learning, learning, learning. How to be kind, how to be helpful, how to encourage. Learning also that there are so many customs, so many ways to God, through these people,” he said. “They tried to be good. They found their lives overwhelming, the poverty overwhelming. It was a tough time. I learned a lot. I admired so much the people, their goodness.” 

One village was about an eight-hour drive into the Andes Mountains, and the nuns had not celebrated Mass there in a year because the priest had been murdered. He had worked with parishioners to buy a truck so they could take their wares to the city. One day, after the truck had been purchased, the priest was found dead in his home. 

“I remember going in the room where his body was and wow, that was very powerful,” said Father Brownell. 

The priest also visited the sites in Guatemala and El Salvador where Blessed Stanley Rother and St. Oscar Romero were martyred. 

“I find strength in these courageous people because I feel sometimes I am a coward, but I feel they walk with me,” said Father Brownell. 

Father Brownell returned to the diocese as pastor of St. Peter, Richmond, in 1990 and served there until his retirement in 2015. In addition, he served as pastor at St. Patrick, Highland Springs, (2004-2006) and at St. Elizabeth, Richmond, (2005-2006).

Rough patches, ‘true beauty’

Despite the difficulties he has encountered, Father Brownell said it’s rare that he has been down for long and that he has a “happy heart.”

“My life is like a beautiful stained-glass window, but the kind made out of chipped class instead of the perfectly smooth kind. The kind that when the sun hits it, it shines at different angles. It shows that you have to go through the rough patches to see the true beauty. You see that it was God that got you through,” he said.

To mark his golden jubilee, Father Brownell is having a “low-key” celebration on Sunday, Sept. 22, beginning with a Mass at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, West Point, followed by a “little celebration” with the people of the parish.

“We’re extending the day. That’s better than trying to squeeze everything into May when everyone else is doing stuff in May,” he said, adding that it will also help Father Oscar Paraiso, parish pastor, because he will be out of town.

Later that day, Father Brownell is planning a family reunion where he can “just talk and visit” with close friends, which will be a bit different from his retirement from active ministry nearly four years ago.

“There was a big party, but afterwards there were so many more things I wanted to let these people know – how they’ve influenced my life by letting me share big moments with them,” Father Brownell said.

Reflecting on the path his vocation took, Father Brownell credits close friends and others for helping him appreciate it all.

“I offer a prayer of gratitude to all the people who have worked with me in good times and bad. The ones who have loved me, hated me, held onto me and would love to get rid of me,” he said. “I thank God for each and every one of them because each in their own way has invited me to become a better priest, a better person.”