Althoff Catholic High School senior Marie Harla said she has learned a lot from Bishop Edward Braxton, who frequently visits the Catholic grade schools and high schools in the Belleville Diocese.
Marie, 18, recalled Braxton telling the students during a visit: “You guys are the future generation. If you keep your faith, you are going to be the leaders of your generation, of your communities.”
She said Braxton would “actually spend time with each class” during his yearly visits to Cathedral Grade School when she was a student there, and then Althoff High School. He would give the students the opportunity to ask questions about their faith and current events, said Marie, who was confirmed by the bishop at St. Peter Cathedral in Belleville.
“He’s been very friendly with his visits,” Marie said. “To take the time out of his busy schedule to go to all the grade schools and the high schools every year, that meant a lot to know he cared for us and wanted to come and teach us and learn from us.”
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Braxton is known for his great concern for Catholic education. Those closest to him also noted Braxton’s immense focus and thoughtfulness.
“I found him to be very thoughtful about things,” said Monsignor John McEvilly, vicar general. “I find that he is often much more concerned about the people he works with than perhaps they understand.”
McEvilly also said the bishop doesn’t jump to conclusions and only wants first-hand information.
“I’ve learned that I cannot tell him I heard. That means nothing if I did not see it or observe it,” McEvilly said of Braxton. “That makes a lot of difference. He doesn’t deal with hearsay.”
He described Braxton as an “academic,” which makes his style different from previous bishops of the diocese. “I’ve come to appreciate the leadership he gives us,” McEvilly said, “though it’s unlike the previous four. Each of them brought their strength to our diocese, and they will leave their legacy, and I have no doubt he (Braxton) will leave his legacy.”
McEvilly praised the bishop’s concern for people. “I’ve never heard him say anything bad about anybody,” he said of the bishop.
McEvilly said when he’s having health problems or other difficulties, the bishop shows great concern. “He has very good focus about things, and when you become the focus and it’s for a good reason, it really strikes you,” he said, “because you know anything else could have been the focus.”
The bishop chose to tackle the “big problems” and stay with them, according to McEvilly. “Others could have but chose not to deal with those issues,” he said. “When you put something in his focus, he will not deviate from it.”
The Rev. Monsignor John Myler said Braxton has unique gifts he’s shared with the diocese during his nearly 10 years as its leader.
For example, Myler said he’s been impressed with Braxton’s statements about the racial divide that plagues America.
“No other Catholic bishop in the United States has spoken so clearly and at such great length and depth about what the bishop calls the racial divide. He doesn’t call it racism,” Myler explained. “The point of his letters, talks is not to point blame but to say there is this racial divide among people of the United States and among Christians. The racial divide includes Christians on both sides so it is a matter for the church to address and for the leaders of the church to point out to us.”
Like McEvilly, Myler praised the bishop’s outpouring of support when one of Myler’s relatives was diagnosed with breast cancer. “In my dealings with the bishop, which are daily, his first question was always how is she?” Myler recalled. “For a lot of people in the work world, their bosses don’t ask them questions like that. That’s always an important personal touch that’s not there just for show. It’s a real concern.”
As director of the office of worship for the diocese, Sue Huett interacts with the bishop on a weekly basis either in person or on the phone. She described him as “very detailed oriented, focused and always a teacher.”
Braxton has high expectations, according Huett. “He doesn’t ask anything of us that he’s not willing to do himself,” she said.
Huett said Braxton encourages parishioners to learn as much as they can about their faith.
“He wants us not only to be the best Catholic that we can be,” she said, “but he wants us to be the best human being we can be. I’m grateful he has these high expectations of us.”
Like others, Huett commented on the bishop’s attentiveness when her husband, Larry, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. “There was not a time he didn’t ask about my husband Larry,” she said.
Huett also said Braxton would call her husband frequently on the phone to speak to him about how he was doing. “My husband was so moved by that,” she said. “It really meant a lot to him. It meant a lot to me, and it still does.”
Kevin Scheibe, EMS/emergency management coordinator for St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Belleville, formed a connection with the bishop during his stay at the hospital in September 2013. Braxton underwent emergency major abdominal surgery to remove a non-malignant intestinal obstruction.
Scheibe, of Waterloo, said he and his wife, Tracy, are invited to attend the annual social gathering at the bishop’s house in celebration of Christmas. He praised Braxton’s knowledge and memory. He said the bishop is very personable and soft-spoken.
“The bishop to me is a very kind person,” Scheibe said.