Agony of Sorrows

In the heart of South St. Louis, a parish loses its priest because of stricter standards on sexual sin

In early February, the Rev. Michael Campbell took the brittle, yellowed palm leaves he had blessed a year ago and burned them into ash. As his parishioners watched, he reminded them of the act's deeper meaning:

Their sins, too, had been burned away.

The next Wednesday, Campbell smudged the ashes on forehead after forehead, pressing gently with his thumb as he murmured prayers of humility and repentance.

Our Lady of Sorrows, in South St. Louis
Jennifer Silverberg
Our Lady of Sorrows, in South St. Louis

Two weeks later, his bishop climbed into Our Lady of Sorrows' pulpit and announced that 13 years ago, Campbell had "sexually abused" someone between the ages of 12 and 18. Because of the archdiocese's new standards -- because of grievous and lurid sins committed by others -- he would be removed from his beloved parish.

His burnt offering had not been forgiven.

He had to pay again.

And now, so did his parish family.

Built to weather centuries, Our Lady of Sorrows is a cathedral-sized Romanesque church. Its foundation runs deep into the red clay of South St. Louis. Its square bell tower rises high above the drift of home cooking and diapers from tiny brick houses along Rhodes. Its bricks are mortared as tightly as the conservative, old-fashioned values of its congregation.

Instead of a steeple, the church has a dome, its weight resting on a row of columns that stretches across the entire front of the building.

Pillars of the church.

Supporting its hierarchy.

Behind the columns wait three sets of oak doors. Open the doors, and here are the people -- 1,895 families such as the Brolemans, who have ordered their family's life around the holy days and seasons of the church, poured their energy into parish events and used church teachings as the compass for every decision.

Doug Broleman is the sort of guy people refer to as the salt of the earth: Friendly and blunt, he's balding and a tad overweight, without a shred of vanity about either. Judy Broleman even looks kind, with blond hair soft against her cheeks and creamy skin that blushes easily.

They have a daughter and two sons, all grown now, and a dog well past his squirrel-chasing prime. They still live in the square brown house, neat as a wren's nest, that they bought 35 years ago.

Doug didn't grow up Catholic, but when he was 8, his mother fell ill and the family on the farm next to theirs helped take care of him.

"They had fish every Friday," he remembers, "and said prayers before meals, and once they brought home a jar of pickled pigs' feet and ate 'em before they realized it was meat."

They were aghast.

They honored every detail of their faith. Yet when their priest came by and said, "Well who's this young man? I haven't seen him at church" -- and the mother explained -- and the priest hinted that they should send Doug home because he wasn't Catholic -- she kicked the priest out.

Thanks to that generosity of spirit, family and Catholicism twined together in Doug's memory.

At 18, he went out on a blind date with a Catholic and married her three years later. They bought their first and last house in the Our Lady of Sorrows parish.

They were shy at first, climbing the steps to this huge church and kneeling alongside South Side German families who'd belonged there for four generations.

But in the way of all good parishes, they were soon pressed into service. Judy ran the parish school of religion. Doug organized Cub Scout dads and moms, teaching them the mysteries of the Pinewood Derby.

Suddenly, the parish didn't feel so big.

In 1975, when Judy's father fell over dead, she called 911 and her rectory.

She did the same when her mother died. Parishioners took off work to sing her mother's favorite, "Ave Maria," at the funeral.

Judy expected this support, but for Doug, it was wondrous. For the second time in his life, he felt loved and welcomed by a large Catholic family.

In 1977, he asked to be baptized.

The next week, he and Judy went on a parish Marriage Encounter. They came back at the start of Holy Week. By Easter, Judy was ready to burst.

She'd fallen in love with her husband all over again.

Three kids and separate work schedules had pried their lives apart. Marriage Encounter taught them "how to fight and how to forgive," she says.

"Before, we'd have an argument and I'd feel so alone," says Judy. "I'd want to talk, and Doug would retreat. But Marriage Encounter reminded us that love is a decision, not only a feeling.

"Marriage wasn't just Doug and me -- it was Doug and me and God."

Their kids grew tall and branched into their own lives. Judy turned 200 parish volunteers into a miniature Broadway. Doug was house manager, and when the Phantom of the Opera soloist got a little carried away, he just cranked up the smoke machine.

The Rev. Gerard Brennell came to Our Lady of Sorrows and became their close friend -- "to the point where he'd come down here and visit us, get a glass of water, watch the kids play," says Doug. "We were like a pressure-release valve for him, someplace where he could spout his frustrations."

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