Feature / On Campus / Summer 2008

Chaplain with 'Hearty Laugh' Bids Farewell

He is known to hum and sing lines from songs by The Who and Steve Miller Band as he strolls across campus. His love of jazz musician Miles Davis and country singer Johnny Cash are legendary. His jolly laugh and flat-top haircut are instantly recognizable, as is the passion he has for sharing the mysteries of faith with others.

For seven years, Fr. Jim Brokman has called Mount Mercy home, serving as the institution’s Chaplain, engaging with students, faculty and staff, and encouraging others to see God’s work and mercy in their daily lives. This summer marks the end of Brokman’s tenure as Chaplain however, as he prepares to re-enter parish life as a pastor at two northeast Iowa Catholic churches, Immaculate Conception in Sumner and St. Francis in Fayette.

As Brokman prepares to leave campus, it is clear that he has made a lasting impact on the Mount Mercy community. It also seems that essentially everyone on Mount Mercy’s campus has a “Fr. Jim story,” and they are always eager to share it with others.

Brokman joined Mount Mercy in 2001, after serving as an associate pastor at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Marion and St. Jude’s Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids. His interest in academia led him to Mount Mercy, where he took over for Fr. David Ambrosy. In his new capacity Brokman began to teach a Roman Catholic Tradition course, bringing him fully into the academic arena. He also served the institution by offering Mass, collaborating with the Sisters of Mercy, and working as a liaison between Mount Mercy and the community.

In the past seven years, members of the Mount Mercy family have experienced Brokman’s trademark humor, as well as his sincere interest in the day-to-day life of the campus and his innate ability to listen and relate to others. “I believe that being able to laugh is fundamental to who we are — it’s the most basic way we can experience God,” says Brokman. “Humor and laughter is a part of who I am, and I’m always ready to share that. I find that it sets me and others at ease.”

“Fr. Jim is one of the funniest people I have ever met,” says senior Katie Noonan, a 2008 graduate from Monticello, Iowa. Noonan and Brokman met during her freshman year and established a rapport, which would last during her four years at Mount Mercy. Brokman also served as her adviser for the Catholic schools endorsement for her elementary education major. “I remember walking into Mass one night and as I was passing him to find a seat he told me very solemnly that the Pope had the bird flu. I was slightly shocked and felt awful at hearing this news! I asked him how this had happened and Fr. Jim just shrugged and said nonchalantly that ‘the Pope caught it from a Cardinal.’ Then he walked off, laughing at my flabbergasted expression.”

For others on campus, the joke is not the most important part of the interaction with Brokman; rather the joy is in the process by which the priest delivers the final sentence. “Listening to Fr. Jim tell a joke can sometimes be just as funny as the joke itself,” says Dean of the Institute Tom Castle. “He enjoys humor so much that his own laughter often becomes the best part of the punch line.”

Brokman’s ability to speak to students on a familiar level and to articulate Mount Mercy’s unique position in educating all students — regardless of their faith — has garnered appreciation. Additionally, his unique perspective and ability to blend serious conversations with light-hearted moments typically guarantees a positive outcome.

“I admire Fr. Jim because he has the special ability to infuse appropriate humor that not only puts people at ease but also allows for the serious work of contemplation and prayer,” says Neil Bernstein, professor of biology. “He is always interested in the individual and their perspective, and he actively seeks to promote peace, friendship, and harmony while honoring a diversity of beliefs and values. Some of our students perceive a dichotomy between science and their religious beliefs, and Fr. Jim has helped them work through their thoughts with support for our program. Personally, I just feel better after talking with him, and it is always a pleasure.”

“Fr. Jim always wears a smile and his presence makes one feel instantly at ease and welcome,” says Anne King, marketing lecturer. “I have been most impressed with his ability to deliver prayers for all manner of events on campus that get to the very heart of what we are facing at the moment. He is so down-to-earth, approachable, and kind. Through Fr. Jim I have learned to appreciate my faith more and to find great strength in the religious founding of our college.”

Fr. Jim Brokman delivers one of his signature jokes to sophomore Ashley Coon, a management and marketing major from Oxford Junction, Iowa.

Fr. Jim Brokman delivers one of his signature jokes to sophomore Ashley Coon, a management and marketing major from Oxford Junction, Iowa.

“I will remember Fr. Jim for his generosity in terms of his time, energy, and financial resources,” says Joanne Daggit, director of counseling services. “I have seen him, on more than one occasion, reach into his pocket or grab his checkbook to cover essential expenses of students in dire need of assistance — giving true ‘Mercy money’ with no expectation of repayment. The compassion that motivated him was obvious in his words and his expression. Asking no questions other than “How much?” his response was quick and complete.”

Path to Mount Mercy Brokman’s journey into priesthood began early in his life, although it would not come to fruition for many years. “When I was young I was drawn to the church and the way in which the priest was able to bring goodness into people’s lives,” says Brokman, who was raised with a brother and three sisters in Independence,
Iowa. “I had an intuition early on that this is who I am and what I was meant to be — but it wasn’t what I started out to do professionally.” As is the case with many high schoolage individuals, Brokman focused on doing “something safe and with fewer expectations.” Two years of courses at the University of Iowa did not fulfill him and he instead returned to his hometown. After a stint working in a convenience store, it became clear to Brokman that he was meant for the priesthood. “I was more ready to enter the ‘public role’ that being a priest entails,” he says. “I had a sense that this [the priesthood] is what God wanted me to do, and being a priest was becoming more and more attractive.” He enrolled at Loras College in Dubuque to finish his undergraduate studies, and eventually graduated with a degree in Philosophy. He chose to pursue his Master of Divinity degree at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. The final step came when Brokman was ordained as a priest in 1997. He was then assigned by the Archdiocese of Dubuque to serve local parishes in his home state.

Once fully ensconced on the Hill in 2001, Brokman would become involved in a variety of activities with students, which he considers one of his “proudest legacies” of his work at Mount Mercy. During his tenure, he estimates that he has taught more than 600 students in the Roman Catholic Tradition course. He was also an active — and boisterous — participant in the Drama Club’s weekly Montage event, often singing a Johnny Cash tune. And he has been a constant figure in the annual “Mount Mercy Idol” competition to crown the College’s best singer. Brokman was also a consistent presence on the sidelines of sporting events, and served for a time as assistant men’s basketball coach and announcer for the volleyball team.

The Protectors of the Hill

When he arrived at Mount Mercy, Brokman could not have anticipated the role and impact that members of the Sisters of Mercy would have in his life. “I will miss interacting with the Sisters a lot,” he says. “They will leave a big hole in my life.” Brokman is a regular at the Sacred Heart Convent on the Mount Mercy campus and offers Mass there during the week.

In particular he notes close relationships with several Sisters of Mercy, including Sr. Mary Alice Ernst, Sr. Rosaline Kos, Sr. Mary Wilma Wolf, and Sr. Eleanor Cashman, who passed away two years after Brokman came to Mount Mercy. Brokman describes Cashman as “a strong woman of faith who is one of my heroes.”

“The Sisters have been on this property for over 100 years, and their sacrifices and faith have protected Mount Mercy and drawn people — students, faculty and staff — here,” Brokman says. “The density of who they are, the faith they have, and the work they do to continue the mission of the College is enduring.” Brokman notes that he has not gotten to know each and every Sister well, but the connection between the Chaplain and the Convent is unwavering. “The Convent is a microcosm of the universe — with the amplifier turned way up,” he jokes. “The Sisters have brought goodness and joy to my life, as well as the lives of others on campus.”

Ernst remembers the day she first met Brokman, because it coincided with the celebration of her sixtieth anniversary as a Sister of Mercy. “I could tell right away that he was a ‘people person,’” she says. “He is at home with people.” She cautions, however, that Brokman’s famed sense of humor should not be all that people see in him. “He has a deep sense of kindness and a lot more depth than that big hearty laugh.” Ernst and Wolf praise Brokman for his unique ability to interpret scripture and the poignant homilies he gives while offering Mass.

When Wolf became ill a few years ago and doctors predicted that she had less than two months to live, it was Brokman that she called to her bedside. “He was the one I wanted,” Wolf says. “He has a real feel for the sick.” Now nursed back to health, Wolf expresses gratitude that Brokman “always makes time for you — as soon as possible.”

Both Sisters of Mercy appreciate the way in which Brokman connects the students living on the Hill with the Sisters living in the Convent. As part of his Roman Catholic Traditions class, he offers students extra credit if they spend time at the Convent with a Sister of Mercy, either talking or sharing a meal. Ernst and Wolf credit the beginnings of several friendships with students because of Brokman’s outreach. They also note that he prays for students during exam times and for their safety as they travel during the summer months and holiday breaks. “Sr. Eleanor had the same feeling for [Fr. Brokman] as we do and most people do,” says Wolf. “He is a person of deep feeling and kindness.”

On any given Sunday you will hear Brokman preach about his conviction that mercy flows from faith. It is a sermon that he gives often — and not necessarily always in the chapel. It’s a conviction, he feels, that is pertinent in any arena. “Each person who comes to Mount Mercy relates to a different aspect of its mission. Our new leadership’s emphasis on our mission becoming more intentional is tremendously important” he says, “for if as a campus community we are not all committed to the totality of our mission we risk becoming a ‘divided house.’ We will always face challenges, but the key for me is faith. It is the job of the Chaplain to highlight faith and the manner in which mercy both flows from it and at the same time brings together all who inhabit the institution.” The mission and vision that the Sisters of Mercy originally conceived flowed out of their faith and Brokman states that this must remain a constant value because it underlies all we are.

A Final Farewell
As Brokman begins to pack up his office and prepare for parish life, he reminisces about his ever-changing role as Mount Mercy’s Chaplain, the students who have shared their faith journeys with him, and the new experiences
that await him. “Sometimes college students put their relationship with God on hold, because in college you often have to make a conscious choice about the role of God and church in your life,” says Brokman. “In parishes, we encounter people who have made the choice to have a relationship with God, and focus on helping them to mature in their faith. The greatest joy I have had at Mount Mercy is God using me to help people make a decision about faith in their life. The greatest satisfaction of working in ministry is helping people of different backgrounds experience mercy.”

“I think this is an age where college students take so much for granted, and don’t really know how their faith will come into play as they move through life,” says Janie Mills, bookstore manager. “I think that Fr. Jim is a good man of the cloth, and he walks the walk. I hope those who got to know him will remember this and be thankful for his good works and dedication to Mount Mercy.”

Those with whom he has interacted and helped during their spiritual journeys echo this sentiment. “Fr. Jim is more than a priest or a teacher. He is my friend,” says Noonan. “I have found in my life that there are certain characters who make an impact on me. These are people who have helped me become a better person, listened and gave comfort to me in my darkest hours, been very kind to me, and who have helped me become the person I am today. Fr. Jim has done all of this for me and more. You hear the expression that someone is touched by God, and I truly believe Fr. Jim is one of those select people.”