Norm's World: Milwaukee VA's chief of chaplains celebrates 40 years in the priesthood
BY GARY J. KUNICH
There are fuzzy-headed troll dolls and beanbag teddy bears. There’s a tiny, decorated Christmas tree in the corner, a devil and a soldier nutcracker, and a Green Bay Packers clock on the wall — along with about 100 other pictures, posters, coffee mugs, books and knick-knacks.
If it wasn’t for the collection of crucifixes that also dot the office landscape, you might not even know this office belongs to a priest.
Not just any priest.
The priest — the chief of chaplains at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, a place he has worked since 1990.
“The Associated Press Stylebook” — the Bible of journalists everywhere — say we’re supposed to call him the Rev. Norman Oswald.
Patients, Veterans and employees know him better as simply, “Father Norm.”
And Father Norm just hit a milestone in his career May 19 when he celebrated 40 years in the priesthood. It’s a career that took him to two different parishes before he ended up at the Milwaukee VA for a part-time gig that was anything but, and a stint as the Green Bay Packers official priest when they played their games in Milwaukee.
A half hour interview takes the better part of an hour because, let’s face it, when you spend 40 years as a priest, you’re bound to have some good stories, and Father Norm doesn’t disappoint.
Father Norm blesses a biker during his annual
blessing he sponsors yearly with the Vietnam Veterans.
“This might be the most non-government office in the government,” he said with a laugh. “But everything you see here was a gift, and everything here tells a story. Some of them are good stories and some of them are sad stories, but they serve as a constant reminder and memory about what is important.”
Being a priest should come naturally. It’s something he said he wanted to do since the 6th grade, even though his father tried from time to time to talk him out of it and get him to take over the family carpentry business.
“He was afraid I wasn’t doing it for me, and he died six months before I was ordained,” Father Norm said. “That’s when I found out he was praying for me every day for my vocation. And he was happy when I was ordained as a deacon, because then he knew I was doing it for me, and he knew I was happy.”
His dad had been in the Army Air Corps and then the Air Force and served in World War II and Korea. It was only natural, Father Norm said, to want to do the same and serve as an Air Force chaplain. But when he graduated from seminary in 1972, the archbishop refused to let him go and said he was needed in Wisconsin. He was assigned to St. Mark’s in Kenosha from 1972 to 1980.
“It was a great place. Got to meet a lot of great people,” he said. “My favorite part was the baptisms. You get to see the joy of a lot of first-time parents, and because of that, they reconnected with the church.”
It was tough to leave, Father Norm said, when he was reassigned to Immaculate Conception in Bay View — the same place he was baptized as a baby.
“I started there as the associate pastor and then took over, and when we started, we had 1,000 families on our rolls at the church, and when I left, there were 1,700,” he said. “We just did it with old-fashioned, door-knocking, and meeting people, inviting them to church and renewing their faith.”
But by 1990 he needed a break and took some much-needed sabbatical time. A few months later, the bishop called and asked if he wanted a part-time job at the VA. He figured it was finally his chance to come full circle. If he couldn’t serve in the military, he could serve those who served in the military.
But paperwork got lost, with part of it going to one part of the VA, and the rest of it going somewhere else. He couldn’t get hired until one place or the other found the paperwork so it could all be put together.
“And on July 22 — my father’s birthday — is when they found all the paperwork, and I was hired. I always felt that was him looking out for me and making it happen,” he smiled.
“This was a test,” he said. “My assignment was with the substance abuse patients, the locked mental health ward, and spinal cord injury,” he said. “It was scary at first, and I had to learn to drop my fears, and learn how to listen.
“It was really the spinal cord patients who taught me about life. I always thought, ‘If anyone has a right to go through life feeling sorry and depressed, it’s them.’ But they are anything but that. They embrace life. They used to wait for me to come up to (the clinic), and they’d race me down the hall. They have such a camaraderie and support for one another, and are so quick to help a new patient and pull him through the sadness. That’s a very admirable trait, and I try to use that myself as the eternal optimist.”
He’s also an eternal Packers fan — hence the green and gold memorabilia that dots his office. And during football season, as he has done for so many years, he always ends his mass with a special blessing for the Green Bay Packers.
Word got back to the team, and he was asked to serve as their Catholic priest when they would play a few games a year at County Stadium, from 1994 to 1998. The job didn’t pay, but he got to meet a lot of the greats and had some awesome football seats.
“That was a great time,” he said.
He also took over as the chief of chaplains around 1994.
In this position he still counsels those patients who need it most, and says Mass several times a week. He supervises seven other chaplains, along with his secretary, Donna Babineau, who keeps it all together.
“His staff is well taken care of, and no matter what is going on, he is never too busy to lend an ear, offer a helping hand, give you constructive criticism or get your back, if need be,” she said. “He seems to be able to find the positive in any kind of situation.”
There are so many more stories, but Father Norm’s a busy guy. He spent his morning counseling substance abuse patients, and had another appointment coming up.
It’s one of the favorite parts of his job now.
“Because there are people who come here with no hope, who don’t think they deserve God, and I tell them that they do, that they are all children of God, and children aren’t done growing and learning.
“Sometimes people come to me and they’re angry and they’re atheists. They might leave here and still be atheists, but they don’t leave angry,” he added.
It’s hard to sum up his greatest satisfaction about his time here, but one he is particularly happy to be a part of is the annual bike blessing he started 22 years ago to reach out to Vietnam Veterans.
“At the time, they did not feel welcome here at the VA, and there were still some hard feelings,” he said. “I wanted them to know they had a place here and we needed them.”
He used it as an opportunity to also help other Veterans, and so the Vietnam Veterans have since come through, collecting tens of thousands of dollars for a special Chaplain’s Fund that Father Norm uses specifically for needy Vets, whether it’s a warm meal or a clean pair of underwear.
It’s hard to say where Father Norm will be celebrating his next career milestone.
“When I graduated seminary I was going to light the world on fire,” he chuckled. “And in my own way, I lit my fires. I’m wiser now. So we’ll see where I’m at, when I’m 70. I didn’t say I’m going to retire at 70. I may still keep going. I like what I do.”
He laughs that loud, Father Norm laugh.
“No, I can just move everything on the walls closer together.”