The following article first appeared in the June 12, 2012 print edition of The Compass
It's the late 1940s and a young lad is arguing with his mother in the tiny, isolated fishing community of Conche on the Northern Peninsula.
The mother, frustrated at her son's intransigence, warns her offspring that if he continues to misbehave, his guardian angel will bring him harm.
Intrigued by such a suggestion, and not one to accept things at face value, the boy deliberately gets up to more mischief.
He escapes the wrath of his "angel," but not the continued irritation of his mother.
It was an early sign that Edward Thomas Bromley was not a follower, and was destined for something more than a life in the fishery.
His mother, the late Mary (Bartlett) Bromley, would often comment that her son was aptly named, and regularly called him "Doubting Thomas," after the apostle who doubted Jesus' resurrection.
"I guess I was somewhat of a rebel in those days," Bromley, the parish priest for the historic St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Parish in Carbonear, recalled during an expansive and wide ranging interview last week.
Many years later, that young maverick is a noted and highly educated leader in the Roman Catholic church in this province. He is lauded by his peers and followers for what they say is a brilliant mind, a mastery of the English language, a unique charm and wit, and a devotion to the church and its teachings that has remained steadfast through some challenging and difficult times.
Monsignor Bromley, to use his formal title, is also getting plenty of attention these days for his longevity, since this month marks the 50th anniversary, or golden jubilee, of his ordination to the priesthood. It's a rare milestone in any profession, but in his trademark understated and silver-tongued fashion, the man at the centre of all the attention is not taking it too seriously.
He plans to retire in late August, and admitted the time has come for a new chapter in his life.
"I'll be happy to retire," he offered. "I won't have to worry about roofs leaking or basements being flooded."
However, he will miss the spiritual aspect of parish work, especially performing weddings and baptisms. And he's always felt a privilege at being able to conduct a funeral service.
He plans to move to St. John's, and has been tapped to minister to the Presentation Sisters.
"I'll do that for as long as I'm reasonably healthy," he said.
Msgr. Bromley has a deep connection to many areas of the province, having ministered in numerous regions (see fact box). In addition to being a priest, he's also served as a teacher of philosophy and religious studies, an RC chaplain and as the administrator and vicar general of the Diocese of St. John's.
He's travelled extensively, studied at some prestigious institutions, and met one-on-one with the late Pope John Paul II, whom many describe as the strongest modern day leader of the church.
"I had great admiration for John Paul. So actually sitting with him was a great delight," Bromley noted.
He's conducted countless church services, been a spiritual leader to many thousands of parishioners, and some might say defied the odds by even becoming a priest.
Early in his quest to become a priest, some church leaders, including the late Bishop John Michael O'Neill of Harbour Grace, questioned whether Bromley was priest material.
"I didn't always accept things he did, and I told him so," Bromley said of his "ultra-conservative" superior.
Just like his mother, some felt he was too much of a free spirit.
"We've obviously proved them wrong," Bromley quipped.
Msgr. Bromley seemed much happier when he blazed his own path, and was not always prone to conformity. During his days as a teacher and chaplain at Memorial University, for example, he became a volunteer broadcaster with VOWR radio, which is owned by the United Church of Canada.
Yes, the United Church.
"Some priests thought that wasn't quite kosher. That I should spend my time doing something more useful rather than playing Peter Seeger on the radio," Bromley said.
"All I can say is it was great, great fun and I made a lot of friends."
Bromley has a weighty voice that's made for radio, and admitted that if he didn't become a priest, he likely would have pursued a career as a broadcaster.
"I always had two ambitions, so at that time I decided I could do both," he explained.
So why did he become a priest? Because he felt it was the right thing to do, nothing more, nothing less. And 50 years ago, setting out to become a priest was much more desirable than it is today.
"I didn't have any great thoughts of saving the world; maybe saving my own soul," he said.
Keeping the faith
During his half-century in the priesthood, Bromley and other church leaders have endured a great deal, including high profile scandals related to sexual and physical abuse, a thinning out of congregations as young people turn away from the faith, the removal of denominational education from the school system, and the closing or consolidation of churches, especially in rural areas.
Bromley admitted it hasn't been easy, but said his faith or his commitment to the church has never wavered.
For him, "nothing has changed," despite what he described as "naughty deeds" by some church leaders, including his old friend, disgraced bishop Raymond Lahey.
"I continue to believe the same way I did before, with a few skeptical doubts here and there," he said.
Bromley said it is "somewhat painful" that young people are turning away from the church. It's not uncommon to go to a church service and be hard-pressed to see anyone under 50 years-of-age.
He is inspired by those who remain true to their faith, and continue to make great contributions to the church. He singled out the late Angela Collins, whom he described as a "wonderful sacristan" at St. Patrick's church.
"I have a certain sadness about people who have been attached to priests, for example, attached to the church for personal reasons, who have been let down very badly. That has not been my case. But I do have a certain sympathy. I feel sorry for those who have left the church, and I'm sorry for the whole situation," he said.
Another sign of the times is the shortage of home-grown priests. A growing number of church leaders in this province come from countries such as the Philippines.
Bromley remembers a time when priests from this province would take on missions in Africa.
As for the future of the church, Bromley said he'll leave that question to those who follow in his footsteps. He places his trust in the Lord, but noted that the church has recovered from tough times in the past. He speaks of a "remnant" that he hopes will help the church bounce back, much like the Jewish people did, though he admitted, "Not in my time."
About Msgr. Edward T. Bromley
• Occupation - parish priest, St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Parish, Carbonear. The parish also includes Sacred Heart church in Heart's Desire;
• Date of birth - Oct. 27, 1935;
• Ordination to the priesthood - June 16, 1962, St. John's; performed by Archbhisop Patrick James Skinner;
• Hometown - the small Northern Peninsula fishing community of Conche;
• Family - parents are Peter and Mary (Bartlett), both of whom are deceased; siblings include brother Gerald (Victoria, BC) and sisters Elizabeth (the Goulds) and Margaret (Pleasantville);
• Education - completed Grade 11 at Sacred Heart school in Conche; St. Bonaventure's College, St. John's; St. Paul University, Ottawa, six years, Bachelor of Arts (philosophy) and a licence in sacred theology; Memorial University, Bachelor of Education and a masters of philosophy; Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, licence in philosophy (1971).
• Mentors - Fr. Edward Walsh, who died recently at 92 years-of-age; Brother J. P. Keane (deceased), St. Bonaventure's College, St. John's; and Sister Loretta Dower, Bromley's Grade 11 teacher;
• Career highlights - parish priest in Badger (1963-68); taught religious education and philosophy and served as RC chaplain at Memorial University (1968-1979); Brent's Cove (1980); Bonavista/Port Union (1980-1984); Gander (1984-1991); Holyrood (1991-1995); Grand Falls-Windsor (1996-2002); Carbonear (2002-present). Also served as administrator for the Diocese of Grand Falls for more than two years, beginning in October 1998. He was later appointed vicar general by Archbishop Martin Currie.