Clearly, Bishop Edward K. Braxton has trouble with first impressions. Just ask downstaters in Belleville, Ill., where as much furor as fanfare marked Braxton’s installation recently as diocesan high shepherd. Many priests and parishioners had tried to keep the 61-year-old out of Belleville altogether, citing concerns about the Vatican’s alacritous decision to name a new bishop just weeks after his predecessor departed. But Braxton himself worried them, too. Back in March, his first dictate as Belleville’s bishop-elect was a $25,000-plus renovation for the bishop’s residence. To Braxton’s future flock, it did not seem like a promising start.

Parishioners at St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy’s Church in Oak Park can remember a similar foreboding. Beginning in 1992, Braxton served three years there as pastor, and almost upon his arrival, he forced the resignation of a much-beloved nun whose dynamic?#34;if not altogether orthodox?#34;ministry had included a regular turn behind the pulpit, delivering homilies on Sunday morning. Braxton put a stop to Sister Teresita Weind’s sermonizing, and not long afterward, she packed her bags for Saginaw, Mich.

“That really tore it for a lot of people,” said Jim Bowman, a Catholic blogger and WEDNESDAY JOURNAL columnist who has worshipped at St. Catherine for most of his life. “I think there were demonstrations after that.”

“Because of the way [Braxton] treated Sister Teresita, some people just picked up and left,” recalled Jake Buettner, who led the parish council at the time. “They went to Ascension or to some church on the North Side. … She was a very progressive and much-loved nun.”

Braxton did not respond to a request for an interview.

By all accounts, Weind’s departure threw the congregation at St. Catherine into an uproar. Pews emptied, castigations flew. But the way Buettner and others remember it, the dust seemed to settle after awhile. More people stayed than left, and Sunday by Sunday, Braxton and his parishioners grew accustomed to each other. The relationship was never exactly easy, but rarely was it hostile, either.

“There was no open warfare,” Buettner said. “Braxton wasn’t the type to go around hugging you, but he was a good pastor and a holy person. Many people liked him, even those who disagreed with him.”

Bowman remembers Braxton’s reliably engaging homilies?#34;”It’s not easy to find a preacher who is intelligent,” he said?#34;and St. Catherine parishioner David Detmer, a newcomer during Braxton’s time there, recalled the pastor’s commanding presence.

“For me, he was mostly a positive influence,” Detmer said. “He’s just a very strong presence and a person of doctrine.”

Stickler for the rules

And in a way, that was the problem. A conservative?#34;albeit, according to most everyone, brilliant?#34;theologian with an austere demeanor and a reputation for fussbudgetry, Braxton was perhaps ill-matched for one of the most liberal among Oak Park’s gaggle of progressive congregations. St. Catherine was a church where gays and lesbians worshipped alongside married couples and parishioners welcomed homilies from a nun. Braxton, meanwhile, was a stickler for the rules. The Chicago Archdiocese should have seen this one coming, some say.

“St. Catherine’s really was a showcase for what we call the ‘new church,'” Bowman said. “And here he comes as a conservative into this liberal parish, where people are already feeling that we didn’t pick him. … He would have had to don sackcloth and ashes and beg everybody’s forgiveness for being who he was to keep those people in the church. Braxton’s reputation killed him before he ever stepped foot in the church.”

Frantic rumors greeted the new pastor’s arrival, along with a long letter detailing worshippers’ worries and offering their suggestions. Assisted by a collaborating committee, Bowman wrote that letter, and more than 100 parishioners signed it.

“It was basically a laundry list of things he ought to be concerned about,” Bowman recalled. “It started out, ‘Welcome, dear Father Braxton. Welcome to St. Catherine.’ It went downhill from there.”

In the flesh, Braxton didn’t exactly put the rumors and hand-wringing to rest. Aside from the turmoil with Sister Teresita, Braxton’s reserve and traditionalism struck people as frosty and aloof. His liturgical rigor and demanding disposition didn’t always sit well, either.

“He demanded a lot,” Detmer said. “He was tough on people. He asked people to reach deep into their pockets for the church, and he asked them to reach deep into their efforts.”

“He was a very educated man, a very intelligent man on one level, but he was not experienced in talking to people,” said one former St. Catherine parishioner who asked not to be identified by name. “The more I got to know Father Braxton, the more I appreciated what he was trying to do. But he was not of a blue-collar ilk. … Even today, a lot of people don’t have one thing nice to say about the man, but there are also people who loved him. It’s a difficult situation.”

Buettner doesn’t put so fine a point on it.

“He was a patrician,” he said. “He had high, expensive tastes, and in that way, he separated himself from other people in the congregation. A lot of people?#34;including myself?#34;disagreed with him often, but he was a good pastor. I can’t say he wasn’t.”

Padding his resume?

A Chicago native educated at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Braxton served as associate pastor at Holy Name Cathedral and Sacred Heart Parish in Winnetka before heading to the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium in 1973 for his doctorate. Afterward, Braxton worked as personal theologian to Cardinal James Hickey in Washington, D.C., and taught theology at Harvard, Notre Dame, and the University of Chicago, where he was also director of Calvert House, the college’s Catholic student center. For a year, he was a scholar-in-residence at the North American College seminary in Rome. An African American, Braxton was the keynote speaker at the 1985 National Symposium on Black Catholics, and for six years he worked full-time as a theological consultant for a New York-based religious publisher.

Still, before arriving at St. Catherine, Braxton had never been a parish priest, and some congregants there suspected the post was mostly a resume-filler for someone on his way to bigger things. Indeed, after just three years behind the pulpit at St. Catherine, Braxton was named a bishop.

“It was understood that he had to have preaching experience to become a bishop,” Bowman said. “He’d had quite a career, but no parish ministry to speak of.”

St. Catherine gave him that. Ten years later, some parishioners still haven’t resolved their feelings about the complicated, controversial pastor they struggled to follow.

“Father Braxton was part of the adventure of St. Catherine’s,” Bowman said, recalling the confirmation classes his youngest daughter took from Braxton.

“She said she learned a lot about being a Catholic from those classes,” Bowman said. “She had to give him that, even though when she was a little kid and couldn’t read very well, he was hard on her. It was always like that with him.”

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