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  Parishioners Recall Lebrun's Good Works

By Jessica Trobaugh Temple
South Bend Tribune (Indiana)
September 22, 2002

SOUTH BEND -- In his early years at Little Flower Parish in South Bend, the Rev. Paul LeBrun wore his hair down to his shoulders and a long beard, Dan Csanyi recalls.

"Gregarious is a good way to describe him. ... He was kind of folksy. He had a fairly big voice and a grin on his face ... And as he'd walk down the halls he was a back-slapper," said the parish member who also worked as director of adult education.

LeBrun spent more than half of his 16 years as a parish minister at Little Flower Church. He started working at the parish in the late 1970s, volunteering there while he was a student at the University of Notre Dame. He was later made a deacon in the parish while he worked his way through the seminary.

It was then that Ellen Jenning got to know him.

The Mishawaka resident, who has attended the church on and off for 20 years, recalls how the then-seminary student played his guitar for the 11:30 a.m. Mass.

After his ordination as a priest in the Holy Cross order in 1983, LeBrun took over as associate pastor of Little Flower, where his primary responsibility was youth ministry.

At the onset of his tenure, Csanyi said, LeBrun "got into a suicide hotline.

"He became known among teens. If you need someone to talk to, this is the man to call. ... He was able to grab hold of them and keep them from doing something foolish."

In time, LeBrun formed what he dubbed "Kingdom Construction Company." The group of young people visited places throughout the country -- Arizona, North Carolina, West Virginia -- mending parish structures, cleaning up neighborhoods, rehabilitating homes.

Sometimes seminarians came along as chaperones, Csanyi said, but mostly parents of the seventh- through 12th-graders accompanied the groups.

"His heart was in working with youth," Csanyi said. "He had a reputation as being much liked by the kids."

Peter, who asked that his real name not be used, worked with the youth group for nine years. He said LeBrun always had several adult chaperones with him on trips and that he had joined LeBrun on two such occasions.

If the group stayed overnight at a lodge, he said, the kids slept on the floor and LeBrun was sure to keep the boys and girls separated.

As a regular part of these trips, Peter said, LeBrun led religious conversations and said Mass.

"He had a real good rapport with the kids," said the man, who served at the church through the early 1990s.

'Serious about religion'

When LeBrun had to address a young person who was either the cause of or recipient of trouble, the pastor typically used humor to relieve the situation, he said. "He would cheer them up. ... He could be crazy, but he was very serious about religion."

In his preaching, LeBrun appealed to young people and adults, parishioners say. The pastor had a knack for taking Bible readings and relating them to modern-day situations, Jenning said. "He brought sermons down to the street."

Occasionally, the pastor would use props to underscore the meaning of his message, Csanyi said. Once, during a homily that addressed child abuse, the pastor gave a right hook to a life-sized stuffed bear. Another time, he whipped out a rifle from under the altar.

A man who didn't mince words, LeBrun occasionally offended parishioners when addressing

controversial subjects from the pulpit. "I consider that a gutsy thing," Csanyi said. "There were some occasions when people would walk out on him."

But, in Csanyi's opinion, LeBrun's greatest contribution to the parish was his commitment to serving and caring for the needy.

Once, the priest reportedly posted four shopping carts at the rear of the church and said he expected them to be filled at every Mass, to fill the church's food pantry.

In 1986, LeBrun transferred to Arizona, where he served as a part-time youth minister for St. John Vianney Parish in Goodyear and a neighboring parish, Blessed Sacrament, in Tolleson.

"It was a big job, and he did it well," said the Rev. Thomas Zurcher, who was serving as senior pastor of St. John Vianney when LeBrun arrived.

"Eventually, I think, (LeBrun) said that it was too much for him," Zurcher said, and in 1991 LeBrun took a full-time position at Blessed Sacrament.

"I think he could really identify with some of the issues that youth have to face," Zurcher said. "He could understand the attraction of drugs but spoke firmly against using them."

One of the focuses of LeBrun's ministry with youth, Zurcher said, was getting lay people involved in working with the young people. "He did a nice job on that."

Working with the community

But the priest's strong point, Zurcher said, was an ability to put faith into action. LeBrun didn't just talk about caring for the poor, he incorporated that into his ministry.

For instance, Zurcher said, LeBrun would take South Bend adolescents to Arizona to meet and to work with other young people "to build a camaraderie among Mexican Americans and Anglo youth" and to expose middle-class kids "to the needs of the low-income people."

The priest also regularly took members of the youth group on leadership retreats in the mountains.

There, Zurcher said, he'd speak to them "about self-esteem, self-confidence, the values and virtues of living a good Christian life. And putting (those traits) into action in life and school."

While at St. John, LeBrun also implemented "Rainbows For All God's Children," a program for children who have experienced losses in their lives such as a death of a parent or sibling or divorce.

When LeBrun returned to South Bend in 1993, it was as senior pastor of his original parish, Little Flower.

Again, the charismatic LeBrun earned love, loyalty and respect in the parish.

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"He's an interesting person," Peter said. "That's why people are drawn to him. He's adventuresome, he has a sense of humor, the whole bit."

But over dinner conversations, LeBrun would confide in him about the pressures he felt as a senior pastor. The priest said he felt he could not please every young person, adult or parish council member. "It was just too much, he was getting burned out."

In addition to his regular duties at the church, LeBrun volunteered at the Juvenile Justice Center, where he received a volunteer of the year award in the late 1990s, and at the Family and Children's Center. "He'd make rounds all over the city," Peter said.

Leaving Little Flower

According to several parishioners, LeBrun left the church abruptly in 1999, to receive treatment for a serious health condition.

The official announcement from the rectory, Csanyi said, was that years earlier LeBrun had experienced an undetected heart attack, was currently experiencing chest pains and that doctors suggested he cease his work immediately.

A week later, the Rev. William Dorwart, provincial of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Indiana Province, alerted the congregation that their pastor resigned "for personal reasons." Parishioners later learned that LeBrun was receiving treatment at Southdown, a mental health facility in Toronto, Canada.

After that, he took up residence at the Holy Cross Mission House on the grounds of the Fatima Retreat Center, and through the Roman Catholic Diocese of Gary, he began serving as a contract chaplain at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.

There, LeBrun faced new challenges. He administered last rites to inmates receiving the death penalty, a punishment the Catholic church stringently opposes.

And prisoners, who either fashioned their own weapons or had them smuggled in, posed a threat to his life, the priest told Peter. Once, Peter recalls, LeBrun said he "had a knife go over his head."

LeBrun served at the prison from Jan. 1, 2000, through July 31, 2002.

The prison has a contract with the Gary diocese, which sends chaplains or deacons to work with prisoners. Indiana State Prison public information officer Barry Nothstine said LeBrun conducted the first Mass on "X-row" and would regularly work three to four times his 10-hour-a-week assignment.

"He was a breath of fresh air," Nothstine said. "He had an excellent personality and earned the respect of the staff and offenders ... He was very dedicated to God and to serving others."

 
 

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