Easygoing and even-tempered, Father Hilary Brzezinski walks the halls of Silver Lake College with a smile and a salutation for students, staff and faculty alike.
Dressed in a traditional hooded brown robe of the Franciscan order, the college chaplain both stands out and fits in at the four-year, private liberal arts college founded on the Franciscan Catholic tradition.
“I enjoy young adults," he said. "I enjoy their energy and the promise of their future.”
Fr. Hilary wants people to know that Campus Ministry isn't only for Catholics.
“We welcome those without a church home and people of other denominations, but we’re not trying to raid other denominations,” he said.
“I pastor the college community, the way other pastors pastor local churches or parish communities. That includes conducting worship service, pastoral counseling, spiritual-growth experiences with small groups, and interacting with students and faculty,” he said of his duties.
During his nearly 40-year ministry, Fr. Hilary has served underprivileged populations in the deep South, Southwest and Texas, as well as inmates in Mississippi.
He joined Silver Lake College in 2013, one of three Franciscan friars sharing duties at various Catholic institutions in Manitowoc.
“My style of conducting worship is a style I learned in Mississippi, which is rather different from the typical Wisconsin experience. I would see my style as more emotional, more evocative. Some describe my preaching as fire and brimstone. I think I’ve toned it down a bit, but others don’t seem to think so,” he said with a laugh.
In many ways, Fr. Hilary’s challenges are typical of those working with student populations, whose members run the spectrum from the very devout to those without a religious tradition.
“They’re very busy with studies, their social lives, athletics and extracurricular activities,” Fr. Hilary said of the students. “What that says to me is ministry is likely to be more in terms of one-on-one discipleship rather than in larger settings.”
Fr. Hilary became interested in religious life while at St. Michael’s Catholic Grade School in Wausau, where the Felician Sisters helped nurture his calling. He has often said he was “ready for the Franciscan habit after eighth grade.” Thanks to encouragement by the Sisters, he attended St. Bonaventure High School, operated by the Franciscans in Sturtevant. Brzezinski entered the novitiate at Lake Geneva in 1967.
From there, his life took him to the former St. Francis College in Burlington, Wis. He continued his studies at two former Catholic colleges in Waterford and the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, where he encountered coed classes and lay teachers for the first time.
After graduating in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in history, he moved to Dubuque, Iowa, and began priestly studies for ordination at Aquinas Institute of Theology.
His first assignment after ordination in 1976 was to the pastoral team at St. Hedwig Parish in Gary, Ind., in a poor, inner-city neighborhood, where it was not unusual to hear gunshots at night.
Fr. Hilary felt a calling in 1977 to return to Mississippi, where he had spent a short time during a semester break in seminary, and ended up juggling several positions, including campus minister at Mississippi Valley State University.
After 10 years, he accepted an invitation from the newly established Our Lady of Guadalupe province in Albuquerque, N.M., to assist in its ministry. After seven years, he was appointed pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Santa Rosa, Texas.
In 2004, he returned to his home state so he could care for his aging parents. He served as pastor of St. Mary of the Angels in Green Bay before other assignments took him elsewhere and then returned him to Wisconsin.