Fr. Ray Brenner: A fleeting 'Ray'

Photos by Traci Westcott/The Herald
Father Ray Brenner distributes communion during Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Jasper on Wednesday. 


JASPER — Every year, on the day after Thanksgiving, Father Ray Brenner and his brothers gather at an 80-acre farm outside Evansville.

The farm belonged to their mother’s family, and the yearly ritual marks an annual day of work. The seven men built a garage on the property. Installed new roofs, new siding and new insulation on buildings.

Brenner has served as the pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Jasper for nearly 17 years. Friday, he will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination, and on June 26, he will leave a church community of about 1,750 families for a quieter life.

He’s going back to the farm.

At 3 p.m. on Sunday, a special Mass will be held at St. Joseph to commemorate Brenner’s 50-year milestone. When he retires in June, Father Eugene Schmitt, who is currently the pastor of St. Isidore Catholic Parish, will take Brenner’s place at St. Joseph.

“Last year, it sort of became obvious to me that it was time to move on,” said Brenner, 76.

Father Ray Brenner reads the Daily Prayer in preparation for Mass in the sacristy at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Jasper on Wednesday. 

The seed to becoming a priest was planted in him at birth. His body fought back against disease and disadvantage when he was a young boy, and all the while, he was nurtured and loved by relatives who had already chosen religious lifestyles.

Brenner came into the world at his family’s home in Vanderburgh County. He lived the first 18 months of his life on buttermilk and bananas because they were the only sustenance his tiny stomach could tolerate. Later, as a first-grader, he contracted polio, and he was quarantined from the world for six weeks.

But he made it through.

“God’s saving you for something special,” family members, one who was a priest and others who were nuns, told him.

The following year, while exploring the role of priests and the celebration of Mass as he prepared for his first communion, that’s when little Raymond knew.

One day, he would be a priest.

He was ordained at the St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in 1969. There, he was primed for a life of consoling, helping and assuring those around him that God loves and God forgives.

“To be able to do those kinds of things was very comforting,” Brenner reflected. “And I found them, all these years, to be a big source of comfort.”

When Brenner arrived at St. Joseph in 2002, leading the Jasper church was the biggest assignment of his life. He remembers his time there as challenging but rewarding.

The community was two-and-half times the size of any place he’d worked previously. But that didn’t stop him from getting to work.

He led a $6.2 million grounds project — one that had previously been put on hold — by tapping into his experiences as a laborer, hod carrier and housing authority board member. That undertaking included the renovation of the church’s parish center and the construction of the nearby activity center, among other site improvements.

Brenner has always been a builder. While studying at St. Meinrad, he worked during the summers at Deig Brothers Construction of Evansville, erecting schools and churches. He later spearheaded the construction of a new church and a religious education center in Sullivan, and oversaw the building of a fellowship hall in Jasonville.

He wasn’t shy about calling out architects when he thought the work could be done better.

“The average priest doesn’t know anything about it,” he said of the construction process. Then again, Brenner is not an average priest.

Now, his stocky body weathered by time and his mind worn by years of late-night phone calls, home and hospital visits, funerals, office work and countless Masses, Brenner is ready to step back.

Father Ray Brenner blesses the sacramental bread before communion during Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Jasper on Wednesday. 

His religious work won’t end when he says his final prayer as pastor, though. He’ll donate his time to retreats and other regional church events. He’ll officiate weddings, and he’ll be a substitute, too, periodically filling in for pastors who take vacations and trips away from their parishes.

“I’ll become, what I classify anyway, as a rent-a-priest,” he said, smiling. “Rent-a-priest for the weekend.”

Still, he’ll miss the priests he has lived with on the church grounds and grown close to over the years. He’ll miss interacting with the people in his church family. He’ll carry regrets about those he couldn’t help, and those he has upset.

But he’ll also remember a life of love and grace. A life of first communions and confirmations, of confessions and reconciliations. He’ll remember anointing the sick and bringing people back to the Catholic church after they left decades before.

When he was still a boy, Brenner’s father, George, did not pray for his son to become a priest. Dad prayed that if Brenner did choose that path, he’d become a good priest.

And now that it’s almost over, Brenner feels he has made his father proud.

He’s looking forward to gardening and relaxing in retirement. The road leading to his country farm is lightly traveled. Brenner knows moving alone to a quiet life will be an adjustment from the interaction-heavy schedule he’s filled for much of his life.

He doesn’t plan on building anything new on the property. Those days have passed.

But as he plants and picks green beans and sweet potatoes from his garden, he will be left with precious memories of bringing people close to Christ.

Diocese assignments in Dubois County

The Catholic Diocese of Evansville’s Bishop Joseph M. Siegel has appointed Father Eugene Schmitt, currently pastor at St. Isidore Catholic Parish in Celestine and Dubois, to replace Father Ray Brenner at St. Joseph Parish in Jasper. Schmitt has served St. Isidore for eight years and his last weekend of Masses will be on June 22 and 23.

Father Jeff Read will replace Schmitt at St. Isidore. Read was ordained in 2012 and comes to St. Isidore from Sullivan and Jasonville. He has previously served St. Mary Church in Ireland and Precious Blood in Jasper.

Siegel also appointed Deacon Andrew Thomas parochial vicar of St. Joseph Parish, following his ordination to the priesthood; appointed Father Homero Rodriguez part-time parochial vicar of St. Joseph Parish and St. Mary’s Parish in Huntingburg; and appointed Janie Kempf pastoral life coordinator of Divine Mercy Parish in St. Anthony.

All of these appointments are effective June 26.

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