Seattle Archbishop Emeritus Alexander J. Brunett dies

  • Written by Greg Magnoni
  • Published in Local
Archbishop Emeritus Alexander J. Brunett, who led the Archdiocese of Seattle from 1997 to 2010, died January 31. Archbishop Emeritus Alexander J. Brunett, who led the Archdiocese of Seattle from 1997 to 2010, died January 31.

Archbishop Emeritus Alexander J. Brunett, who led the Archdiocese of Seattle through an era of dynamic growth and intense challenges from 1997 to 2010, ended his earthly pilgrimage January 31. He was 86.

Those who served with the Detroit native described him as a hopeful pastor whose optimistic outlook allowed him to move the archdiocese forward despite obstacles, including a severely deteriorating economic climate and the church’s widening clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Archbishop Brunett was installed as the eighth bishop and fourth archbishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle on December 18, 1997, succeeding Archbishop Thomas J. Murphy, who died June 26 that year.

During his 13-year tenure, Archbishop Brunett created an ambitious vision for the church in Western Washington — entitled “A Future Full of Hope” — and pursued it with the spirit of buoyant determination that characterized his multifaceted vocation as a priest, pastor and bishop over six decades.

“Since my early days here in Seattle, I have learned of the high esteem in which Archbishop Brunett is held,” said Archbishop of Seattle Paul D. Etienne. “I always enjoyed my visits with the archbishop, and found him to be joyful, grateful, and always ready to pray and give his blessing. These are true hallmarks of any disciple of the Lord, and we are grateful for his presence and service in the Archdiocese of Seattle.”

When Archbishop Brunett was appointed to lead the Archdiocese of Seattle, Father George Thomas (now bishop of Las Vegas) was serving as archdiocesan administrator.

“My most striking memory was that we received a highly experienced and seasoned pastor,” Bishop Thomas said in a 2010 interview with The Catholic Northwest Progress, “one very familiar with the rhythm of parish life. And his criterion with everything we did as chancery was: ‘Will this assist and strengthen parish life or not?’”

Ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Detroit on July 13, 1958, Archbishop Brunett was appointed bishop of Helena, Montana, by Pope John Paul II in 1994 at the age of 60, following a long and wide-ranging ministry. He submitted his letter of retirement to Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 at the age of 75 in accordance with canon law. He was succeeded as archbishop of Seattle by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who was installed on December 1, 2010.

But Pope Benedict XVI called Archbishop Brunett out of retirement to serve as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Oakland, California, in 2012. After returning to Seattle, in 2013 he suffered a stroke that severely restricted his mobility. Despite his impairment, the emeritus archbishop was a fixture at major events around the archdiocese until he suffered a fall on April 26, 2019.

“I first met Archbishop Brunett in the 1990s shortly after he was named bishop of Helena, when we worked together on a project to review religion textbooks,” said Archbishop Sartain. “I learned then that he had great devotion to the Lord and the faith, that he was a stickler for detail, and that he had a good sense of humor. I will always be grateful for the privilege of succeeding him in Seattle. It was immediately clear to me that he had assembled a wonderful and competent staff with whom I had the pleasure of working. After his major stroke in 2013, I was constantly amazed and inspired by his patience in suffering. He was a role model for me most especially in that respect, and through everything he thought constantly of the needs of the archdiocese and prayed for us all. It was always his hope to return to active ministry, and he fought the good fight to the end.”

“Archbishop Brunett embraced his faith with boundless and infectious enthusiasm,” said Mary Santi, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Even after his stroke left him partially paralyzed, “he remained filled with hope, which was evident in every prayer he said.”

Undaunted by the challenges facing the local church — including dramatic increases in health care, priest pension and other employee costs — Archbishop Brunett undertook numerous initiatives and building projects to nurture the faith life of Catholic people in Western Washington.

At the same time, he implemented policies and procedures for child protection and outreach to past victims of clergy sexual abuse. Building on more than 20 years of leadership by his predecessors, Archbishop Brunett expanded the local church’s sexual abuse prevention efforts while meeting personally with many victims to apologize and extend pastoral support.

The archbishop “wanted nothing more than to rid the church of the stain [that] the scourge of sexual abuse of minors, failures to protect children and cover-ups had brought,” said Lucy Berliner, director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress and a member of the Archdiocesan Review Board. “He came to see that only by fully facing up to the past and putting permanent protective processes in place could that be achieved.”

Despite the economic downturns, financial contributions to the archdiocese by local Catholics nearly doubled under his leadership. As Western Washington’s general population grew 13 percent, to nearly 5 million, Archbishop Brunett responded by authorizing five new parishes: Holy Redeemer in Vancouver, Holy Cross in Lake Stevens, Holy Innocents in Duvall, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in Woodinville and Christ Our Hope in Seattle.

He supported Catholic education by authorizing two new Catholic high schools, Seton Catholic in Vancouver and Pope John Paul II in Lacey, and in 2002 establishing the Fulcrum Foundation, an endowment to assist Catholic schools and students in need. To promote campus evangelization, Archbishop Brunett approved the renovation and construction of Newman Centers at the University of Washington in Seattle and Western Washington University in Bellingham.

Among the most noteworthy initiatives of his episcopate was the $7 million purchase, renovation and expansion of the former Palisades Retreat Center in Federal Way; it was renamed in his honor in 2011. He also purchased the current archdiocesan pastoral center building, adjacent to St. James Cathedral, in 2005.

Archbishop Brunett was also a great supporter of Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, said Rosemary Zilmer, a vice president at CCS. The archbishop’s Depression-era upbringing instilled in him a great love and concern for the poor, she said.

During Archbishop Brunett’s tenure, CCS served more than 10 million meals, provided nearly 2.2 million nights of emergency shelter, opened 1,101 new units of affordable housing and offered 21 million hours of services to the elderly and disabled.

“We are forever grateful to Archbishop Brunett for his deep commitment to Christ’s call to care through our church’s charitable outreach,” said Michael Reichert, president of CCS. “His legacy of care and service to the poor will be well remembered.”

The second of 14 children born to Raymond and Cecilia Brunett, the future archbishop grew up on the lower east side of Detroit. He entered Sacred Heart Seminary in 1946 and in 1955 was selected to continue his studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He was ordained in Rome in 1958 and returned to Detroit after completing his studies the following year.

In the Archdiocese of Detroit, he served as a parish priest at two parishes and taught high school religion before being transferred to serve as an assistant chaplain at the University of Michigan in 1962. At the urging of his archbishop, he pursued doctoral studies in theology at Marquette University until he was assigned as chaplain at Eastern Michigan University. In 1971, he joined the faculty of St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan, where he taught sacramental theology and served as academic dean.

Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council during Father Brunett’s final year as a seminarian in Rome. The council’s emphasis on ecumenical and interfaith relations led to his assignment as the ecumenical officer for the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1973, the same year he was assigned pastor of St. Aidan Parish in Livonia, Michigan, where he served for 18 years. His archdiocesan duties took him beyond the confines of parish life, and he was instrumental in launching a national Catholic-Jewish dialogue, receiving numerous awards and commendations for his pioneering interfaith efforts.

Father Brunett served as president of the National Association of Diocesan Ecumenical Officers from 1974 to 1981. One of his hallmark achievements in ecumenism came as co-chairman of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission in 2004 with the publication of “The Seattle Statement,” the first joint international statement of understanding by two Christian communions on the place of Mary in the doctrine and life of the church.

In a 2010 interview with The Catholic Northwest Progress, Father Michael McDermott, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Tacoma, characterized Archbishop Brunett as a pastoral leader who animated his vision for the archdiocese by involving others.

“He’s been able to involve people in a variety of different ways that’s been helpful,” said Father McDermott, who served as one of Archbishop Brunett’s consultors on the archdiocesan presbyteral council. “He … brings a real pastoral sense to the things he’s done. I think [the Archbishop Brunett Retreat and Faith Formation Center] is an example of that. That really has his stamp on it, I believe.”

“It’s always been a positive approach,” Father McDermott added in The Progress interview. “Even with the sexual abuse he has tried to be pastoral, especially with the victims.”

When Archbishop Brunett first arrived in the Archdiocese of Seattle, he traveled extensively among the Catholic communities in Western Washington. In his 2010 interview, Bishop Thomas said his many visits to parishes throughout the archdiocese led to creation of an archdiocesan Pastoral Council in 2001 and another series of archdiocesan listening sessions that ultimately resulted in the five-year vision statement “A Future Full of Hope.”

“His commitment to consultative structures and collaborative ministry set the tone for that plan,” Bishop Thomas said.


UPDATE: Services have been scheduled.

On Tuesday, February 11, there will be a viewing from 2 to 5:30 p.m. at St. James Cathedral, with a vigil at 7 p.m.

A funeral Mass will be celebrated Wednesday, February 12, at 11 a.m. at the cathedral.