Fr. Bruce Hennington embraces life, retirement Print
Around the Diocese
Written by Heather Close, Catholic Herald Staff   
Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 -- 12:00 AM
Fr. Bruce Hennington, a history buff, participates in Civil War reenactments around the country. Pictured above, he served as chaplain during a past reenactment in Boscobel, Wis. (Catholic Herald photo/Brian Payne)

Many people embrace their retirement years as a time to reflect and experience life as more free individuals. Some people travel, some take a nap every day. Still some golf and spend time with family and friends.

We all know people who keep working or explore new work as a second calling. But, what about priests? Are their experiences of retirement any different? Is it once a priest, always a priest?

In the case of Fr. Bruce Hennington, who recently celebrated his golden jubilee as a priest, both his priesthood and retirement are an adventure to be lived. When asked how he got started on his grand adventures he says, “Whenever there was a fork in the road, I was led on the right path.”

‘Gregarious wanderer’

Father Bruce is a self-described “gregarious wanderer” who continues to embrace the right paths into retirement. But to appreciate the wonder and joy he finds in his current RV life, he went back to when he first became interested in becoming a priest.

“My buddies and I -- there were eight of us -- all of us wanted to be like Father Ralph. Father Ralph was a total jock. J-O-C-K. I knew if I could follow in Father Ralph’s footsteps, I would be a total jock, too.”

As it turns out, Father Ralph went to St. Lawrence Seminary, in Mount Calvary, Wis., and guess what? Father Bruce decided to attend St. Lawrence, too. Out of the eight young men who aspired to “be just like Father Ralph,” young Bruce Hennington was the only one to finish seminary.

From there he went onto the Capuchin Seminary in Crown Point, Ind. (According to Father Bruce, it is always necessary to point out that Crown Point is located in Lake County, Ind., home to Lake County jail where the infamous “gentleman bandit,” John Dillinger, escaped.)

Interested in the Byzantine rite Mass

In 1959, while still at Crown Point, Father Bruce describes ending up at a Mass only to have the shocking experience of observing the Mass being said in English. “That was a wild thing to see, and I didn’t know what to think, but I was fascinated.”

After Mass he stated he introduced himself to the priest and asked him about the Mass. This English-Mass giving priest turned out to be an older Russian priest from the Byzantine rite named Father Hermes.

Having taken Russian as an undergraduate, Father Bruce said he naturally gravitated to “all great things Byzantine,” and that he spent large chunks of his time participating in Byzantine Masses as a server and educator. In short, he fell in love with the richly interactive traditions of the Byzantine Mass celebration.

Then Father Bruce found himself at another fork in the road. The Church of the 1960s was changing. Those changes prompted Father Bruce to take several educational twists and turns -- he had to leave the Byzantine rite behind. But still, as God would have it, Bishop Cletus F. O’Donnell of Madison ordained Bruce Hennington in 1968.

As Father Bruce looks back at his full days as a priest in Madison, life was busy and full. Having always been a history buff, he decided to join his old high school friend, Fr. John Norder, in participating in Civil War re-enactments. Father Bruce reflected, “I always loved the Lincoln era, so I knew a great deal about the Civil War, but doing the reenactments made me realize how horrible being a soldier during that time period really was. It was bloody, full of disease, and just miserable . . . my role was that of a battlefield chaplain. A chaplain’s duties included everything from assisting field surgeons to handling the mail.”

Father Bruce still participates in Civil War reenactments as far west as Tucson, Ariz. “People forget that the Civil War went west. Gold needed to move from California to the east, and it went through Arizona.

“My job as chaplain during a day at camp was to promote good morale, good morals, and preach. As you can imagine, preaching time was limited, so as to not interfere with drills. The moral vices President Lincoln had instructed chaplains to preach against: drinking, gambling, and visiting the camp across the road. I especially enjoyed the reenactments in Boscobel. It was always interesting, and I had a great time.”

Planning his retirement days

One of Father Bruce’s greatest joys as a pastor was assisting with Boy Scout troops on outdoor safety and adventures where he was able to use his boating expertise. One scout’s dad sold retirement vehicles, and the thought of possibly owning an RV hatched in Father Bruce’s mind. He began to muse about how he would spend his days of retirement.

He recalls how his mind went back to an old John Steinbeck travelogue, Travels with Charley: In Search of America, which he had read in grade school. He recalled how an aging Steinbeck traveled over 10,000 miles around the country with his standard poodle, Charley. The concept of traveling around God’s country deepened in Father Bruce. He did not seek out a dog, but he did set out to find the perfect RV.

In his early sixties, Father Bruce purchased his glorious RV, and he later retired from active priestly life in 2010. Two years in the planning, he was delighted in his Rockwood Ultra RV, “I had spent years teaching boat safety and was on the Coast Guard Auxiliary, so, as such, I knew I needed to plan my ‘shakedown’ trip. You see when a boat gets tested -- like those in Manitowoc -- it is sent out on the water with ‘shake-down crews.’ Waterloo was my version of a shakedown.”

The beginning of the rest of his life

Once his Rockwood was shakedown vetted, Father Bruce wandered about Wisconsin. Then he went west to east -- Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas. Eventually he made his way up north, only to decide it was time to head back down to Florida for the winter.

He shared that what he was looking in Florida was the “cheapest” place to land his RV for the winter, and “when I was trying to pick the place, I recalled my parents always talking about their honeymoon. How they took Highway 41 all the way down to Copper Harbor, Miami, and I decided I would take as much of 41 as I could. I landed in Punta Gorda, Fla.”

At that point, Father Bruce sought out a church where he could attend Mass and possibly help out. After one of these Masses, Father Bruce stopped the priest after Mass and introduced himself. “I remember he said, ‘I don’t need help here, but there’s a little church across the river that is always looking.’”

Rediscovering the Byzantine rite

Father Bruce said, “Hey, I thought to myself ‘I’ll just go check it out,’” and he traveled over to where his fellow priest had directed. “Right there it was, right there on the river, the sign said, ‘All Saints Byzantine Catholic Parish.’ I could hardly believe it. Here I was retired and still my life was coming full circle. I still loved the Byzantine rite -- it was being given back to me.”

A series of introductions and even a reunion with an old classmate, Fr. Peter Lickman, ensued, and Father Bruce was invited to become the “understudy” of the 85-year-old Byzantine priest who had been pastoring the flock at All Saints Byzantine.

“I had to ask for and joyfully received Bishop Robert C. Morlino’s permission to pursue this -- Bishop Morlino knows all about the Byzantine rite, so he gave me his blessing.” Like everything Father Bruce does, he undertook his lessons with zest and focus. He continues to assist at All Saints, which has about 70 families in regular attendance, in the winter and sometimes in between.

When asked how he chooses to evangelize during retirement, he said, “Everywhere I go, I always let everyone know I’m a retired Catholic priest and that I’m available. I do last rights, listen, and am always with the people.”

He noted that if young men are interested in becoming a priest to “look at the doors God opens for you -- sure He’s gonna shut some windows -- but he will open more doors. Walk through them and use your discerned talents to be of service. That’s what I did, and my life as a priest continues to be wonderful.”

In closing the interview, Father Bruce mentions he is looking forward to heading back to Florida. “My spot at the campground is near this giant coconut tree. Boy, do those coconuts grow --from the size of a lemon to a grapefruit to a cantaloupe. And then ‘thump!’ One day a coconut will drop. It’s kind of fun.”

That’s how one priest is spending his retirement. Still loving the Word, preaching, and taking time to watch the coconuts grow.

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