GREEN BAY — Norbertine Fr. Brad Vanden Branden’s office is located in the southwest corner of the library at Notre Dame de la Baie Academy. He welcomes the interchange of students throughout the day. Visitors stop by to see Fr. Vanden Branden, who is in his second year as chaplain at the school, and usually sign the large whiteboard on the north wall of his office.
The discussions with students cover a wide range of topics.
“Last year, I had a senior who was interested in being an aerospace engineer. He asked me if I thought his course schedule looked too heavy. I had no idea,” said Fr. Vanden Branden with a smile. “I get all kinds of questions, problems and celebrations people want to share with me.”
A few students have demonstrated interest in vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
“I try to walk with them,” he said. “It’s my hope that we can get a Norbertine out of it, but it’s the same vineyard, so just trying to get that vocation is important.”
He recently invited a group of Norbertines to the school to share their vocation stories. Fr. Vanden Branden also promotes the diocesan Project Andrew and Project Elizabeth dinners, which include Mass, a meal and discussion about vocations.
“We want to encourage that conversation and give kids the space to ask questions,” he said.
Fr. Vanden Branden’s ministry at Notre Dame includes celebrating daily Mass — Wednesday through Friday — hearing confessions on Fridays during lunch and offering benediction on Mondays.
“They see me a lot in a devotional and sacramental way,” he said. “I also often times lead prayer for student assemblies. I will often bless the athletes and club participants for that semester at pep assemblies. They see me in front a lot. I’m recognizable because of the habit.”
He also assists with music ministry and all-school Masses.
“It was kind of a ‘create your own position’ here,” he explained. “I believe I’m the first chaplain at the school officially. There have been other priests, but none as chaplain.
“I see myself working in tandem with a lot of people,” he added. “The campus minister here, Daniel Kriegl, does a really good job of getting students involved in retreats and other programs. I help out a lot with that, whether that’s sacramental ministry or just serving as another person on the team.”
Fr. Vanden Branden, who was ordained to the priesthood on June 4, 2016, was a student teacher at Notre Dame before he was a Norbertine. He returned to the school during his second year in novitiate as a campus ministry intern. He is back in the classroom this year teaching a ninth grade theology class.
“I student taught in choir, but I’m now in a different role,” he said. “I enjoy (theology class).
The students come with a lot of questions and a real curiosity to learn.”
One of Fr. Vanden Branden’s main ministry focuses this year is helping faculty and staff develop their relationship with Jesus.
“The faith aspect of what we do here isn’t just for students, but for everyone in the larger community,” he said. “I’m constantly trying to find ways to engage faculty and staff. This semester I started a Bible study. We’ve been looking at St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. I’m trying to engage some small group discussion.
“I would like to be more intentional in giving faculty tools to share the Catholic faith and values in the classroom,” he added. “My hope is that the students come to a place where they realize that faith sharing isn’t something only for the campus minister or chaplain, but their math teacher may have a tool or experience to share with them.”
Another main focus is serving as a resource for parish staff and pastors. Unlike the parish elementary schools, the 767 students at Notre Dame Academy come from a large number of parishes.
“I would like to see our kids more involved in their home parishes,” said Fr. Vanden Branden. “What they do here is great, but I would like to see them be inspired to go home and share that with their parishes. I don’t want them to think that this is someway a replacement for their parish. I would like to work with pastors to encourage that.”
Fr. Vanden Branden invites youth ministers from the parishes to visit Notre Dame once a semester with ice cream sundae fixings and youth ministry calendars. He also encourages youth ministers to host a pizza lunch for students from their parish.
Parish life is important to Fr. Vanden Branden. He serves as a priest celebrant at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in De Pere, his home parish.
“I feel as though I get the best of both worlds,” he said. “I’m here Monday through Friday. On weekends, I get to say Mass and be with the people of the parish.”
Fr. Vanden Branden lives at St. Norbert Abbey, in De Pere. He tries to be present at evening prayer and Mass at the Abbey as much as possible.
“I can’t make morning prayer much, but I like knowing that there is that stable prayer life at home,” he said.
Fr. Vanden Branden, who joins the school choir on occasion, is reminded of the longstanding Norbertine tradition associated with Notre Dame Academy. Parents and alumni share stories with him about their high school days, especially graduates of Premontre and Abbott Pennings.
“They talk about men from the order who made a great impact on their lives,” he said. “They’re happy to see a priest here. A lot of them are used to seeing a white habit. That in itself makes them feel connected to the school.”
“There is a renewed passion for a chaplaincy at Notre Dame Academy and other Catholic schools. Fr. Brad brings a special passion for faith and education that is contagious,” said Kevin Shaw, Notre Dame Academy president. “He proclaims the Gospel not just through liturgy but also through a ministry of presence. His role is not just limited to our students. He cares for parents, teachers and staff as well. Fr. Brad’s role is to be a ‘linker.’ To help our people access support in challenging times and to feel part of the NDA community. He adds a whole new dimension to our faith community with 1,100 years of Norbertine tradition behind him.”
There is currently no end date for Fr. Vanden Branden at Notre Dame.
“If I had my way, I would like to put in at least another five years here,” he said. “Right now I’m here for the foreseeable future. It’s good. The days are never the same and that’s OK with me.”