Life of Service Energizes
With six daughters and a son, Mr. Hugh Birdsall Sr., and his wife, Marion, worked and lived on a farm in rural Wisconsin. This close-knit family had two priests in their extended relations. So, it was not a big surprise when their only son, Benjamin, who eventually took the religious name of Fr. Hugh Birdsall, SDS, in honor of his father, followed this same priestly path.
Initially, life as a seminarian was not top of mind for Fr. Hugh. He was merely thinking about it. However, one day, he felt a connection while doing his morning chores on the farm. "I began to feel a call to serve God as a priest. Other things funneled into my decision, but they were subtle," said Fr. Hugh. "Also, my cousin and uncle both went to seminary and were major influences for me." He left for high school and the Salvatorian Seminary at St. Nazianz in 1949. Toward the end of his minor seminary years, the prospect of religious life came more to the forefront. "The routine of daily life in the seminary with early morning Mass, meditation, classes, meals with the other seminarians, and regular prayer became a part of me – my way of being. It allowed me to say yes to this life permanently for myself and the Church," he shared. "Religious life opened the door to the idea of teaching, which was of great interest to me. Deciding to become a Salvatorian was seamless."
Fr. Hugh entered the novitiate in 1955, made his first profession of vows a year later, and was ordained at Divine Savior Seminary in Lanham, MD, in May 1962. Fr. Hugh's first assignment led him to the Diocese of Sacramento in California and St. Pius X Seminary. "I was not adequately prepared to teach but challenged myself to teach algebra, world history, English, and Latin courses," he said. "Looking back, I did a pretty good job relying on what I learned during minor seminary." Having attained a degree in Philosophy, he moved to Waukesha, WI and began teaching at Mount St. Paul College. Admittedly, he again felt stretched by the curriculum. "I worked hard to understand the materials I was to teach, so I could effectively communicate them to my students. I wanted them to succeed."
Fr. Hugh's next assignment was campus ministry in the Archdiocese of Baltimore: This was a shift. "I wondered what my ministry would be beyond celebrating the liturgy with students and faculty," he said. Fr. Hugh recalled setting up his first Mass on a predominantly black campus, waiting to see if anyone would show up. Three students came. Over time a community grew. "I learned much and found purpose in a community where I was a distinct minority. I gained a great appreciation for the marginalized, which has been persistent throughout my ministry." Fr. Hugh would spend nine fruitful years in campus ministry, serving on different campuses in Maryland. As a campus minister, he realized how much he enjoyed counseling and working with people.
In 1978 he took a sabbatical year, spending his time at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, KS. He immersed himself in a 10-month program for clergy. This was a pivotal transition. He earned his Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling from Loyola College and began pastoral counseling while also serving as a chaplain at a local hospital. While counseling individuals and couples, Fr. Hugh witnessed great results from this enriching ministry.
He was needed in Wisconsin in 1983 to serve as Formation Director for the Society. Obediently returning, he asked to continue his counseling ministry, which he did for many years from the Provincial headquarters in Wisconsin. He served eight years in this capacity until 1991, when he began to teach pastoral care classes at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology (SHSST). He tried to share the principles of "helping" with his students. "They didn't always like me due to the workload," he said while grinning. "But preparing them for down-to-earth interactions and not theoretical or philosophical approaches was fundamental to what they needed to understand." He remained a teacher at SHSST for 20 years until his retirement in 2011. Reflecting, he shared, "I always felt blessed and pleasantly surprised by these students."
In retirement, Fr. Hugh remains busy helping at St. Therese Parish in Milwaukee and with his friends and Salvatorian Family with whom he resides at Alexian Village in Milwaukee.