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On a Mission to Meet His Flock

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Orange County Catholics got a first glimpse of their new bishop Tuesday, a man whom few expect to make radical changes despite a track record in Idaho of closing and merging parishes because of a shortage of priests.

Bishop Tod D. Brown, 61, is generally viewed as a firm administrator who, like his predecessor, Bishop Norman McFarland, keeps a tight hold on diocesan finances.

“To keep the diocese healthy, I think to keep the budget balanced is just essential,” Brown said at a morning news conference announcing his appointment effective Sept. 3. “I think it’s important to have the funds in place before you undergo expansion.”

Brown’s current diocese encompasses about 113,000 Catholics across Idaho, compared with about 610,000 in the Diocese of Orange. While the Idaho diocese has been growing slowly, the Orange County diocese is expanding rapidly.

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Although many Idaho Catholics praised Brown, his focus on administrative issues embittered others, particularly in parishes that were closed or that had their priests reassigned without a full-time replacement.

“He focused on the money rather than the spiritual,” said Mary Maier, whose rural Sacred Heart parish on the Nez Perce Reservation in northern Idaho lost its full-time priest five years ago.

Yet supporters said Brown showed that he is capable of making difficult and unpopular decisions.

“He’s done a decent job--I would say an excellent job--considering the economics of things here in Idaho,” said Raymond Acosta of Boise, whose church was converted into a student chapel for Boise State University by Brown. “I was displeased with him at the time. . . . After I got to understand what was going on, as far as the shortage of priests, I’ve forgiven him for that.”

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The Rev. Roger LaChance, pastor at St. Pius X in Coeur d’Alene, who also chairs the diocese priests council, described his boss as a professional administrator able to see beyond the emotions of the moment.

“He’s had some hard decisions to make in the last few years with the number of declining clergy,” LaChance said. “He’s made some choices that have not been popular all around, but I think time will prove him true, that a lot of the things that we are anticipating doing in the future he has already, in a sense, had the courage to move into.”

In Orange, the mood was celebratory as the formal announcement was made in a room filled with diocesan officials as well as priests and nuns wearing loops of magenta ribbon--bishop’s colors--in honor of Brown.

Brown said he learned he had won the appointment, which had been rumored since December, while attending a church convention in Pittsburgh on June 19.

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“I’m still flying with the news that I’m being transferred,” Brown said. “I’m grateful to God for the opportunity.”

Brown said his first mission will be to learn more about the diocese.

“I don’t have any particular goals, simply because I’m not familiar with the Church of Orange,” Brown said.

McFarland said Brown’s tenure leading a smaller, less-affluent diocese in Idaho was good experience.

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“He has been in this kind of role where he has to be very hands on,” McFarland said. “He hasn’t had the kind of backup he’ll have here, which means he’s learned a lot. There’s an old Italian saying that to be a carpenter, you learn by carpentering. You learn on the job, and that’s what Bishop Brown has done.”

In Idaho, Brown saw the number of priests decline from 80 to 54. He dealt with the staffing problem in ways familiar to bishops around the country: by closing or merging parishes. Rural churches that remained open now operate with visiting priests, which, some parishioners said, has caused young Catholics to leave.

“He’s actually destroyed the Catholic Church around here,” said Theresa Quinn, a critic from northern Idaho. “In rural areas, where it takes two or three hours to get to another parish, he doesn’t care if people go to church. . . . It’s just been awful these years he’s been here. I’m just tickled to death he’s gone.”

His tenure wasn’t all administrative work. He spoke out against Idaho’s anti-gay initiative in 1994, which would have limited government’s efforts to protect gay rights. He also opposed the 1993 execution of Keith Eugene Wells--Idaho’s only execution in the 20 years since it reinstated the death penalty--on grounds that it denied the sanctity of life.

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Robert Fontaine, director of Education Ministries under Brown, said the bishop introduced a new level of professionalism to the diocese, such as procuring retirement and health benefits for employees and waiving tuition for children of all diocese employees.

He also added administrative staff to departments such as the education office, which oversees about 3,100 students--up about 1,100 since Brown arrived.

“He came in and put together an education department that helped address the needs of our diocese,” Fontaine said. “We’ve had a significant increase in student enrollment. We would have far more if we had the facilities. We have a waiting list.”

While Brown backs education, Fontaine said, he has resisted incurring debt to build schools.

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“He’s been very supportive but very conscientious of being careful from the standpoint of financial liabilities,” Fontaine said.

In that regard, Brown echoes McFarland, who has forced local parishes to arrange financing in advance for construction projects to avoid long-term debt.

Born in San Francisco, Brown was ordained in 1963 and assigned to Monterey, where he was active in social justice issues, including undocumented workers’ rights. In 1988, he was elevated to bishop and appointed to Boise.

Several Catholics in Idaho described him as a private man fond of movies, bicycling, swimming and driving the Idaho countryside to visit out-of-the-way parishes. He also was known for hosting regular dinner parties to thank lay leaders in the church, and to give them a chance to socialize outside the confines of committee rooms.

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Brown’s appointment to the Diocese of Orange was greeted with pleasure by Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who attended St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo with Brown. Bishop William Levada of San Francisco also studied with Brown and Mahony, which means three of the dominant Catholic diocese in California are now run by former classmates.

Msgr. Jaime Soto, Diocese of Orange vicar for Hispanic Communities, was considered a possible and popular candidate for bishop. He said he hopes Brown, who speaks Spanish, will build on the diocese’s policy of reaching out to emerging Catholic communities.

“The church during McFarland’s tenure has proven a prophetic witness to what this community can be,” Soto said, citing education programs for lay people in various languages, and successful efforts to recruit priests from among Latino, Vietnamese and Korean Catholics.

It has “brought different cultures and languages under one community of faith, during a time of increasing anti-immigrant sentiment,” Soto said. “I am hopeful that Brown will continue that legacy.”

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During McFarland’s nearly 12-year tenure, the diocese has changed from predominantly white to more than half Latino, with a third of Sunday Masses in Spanish. Vietnamese make up another 12%.

“I’m proud that we have responded to the demographic revolution here,” McFarland said. “We are Joseph’s multicolored quilt.”

McFarland, 75, said that while retiring as a bishop, he hopes to continue serving as a priest.

“I am gratefully shedding the bonds of administration,” McFarland said. “It’s time to get the lawyers off this shoulder and the accountants off this one. I’m looking forward to having a little more time to pray.”

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