Father Tom inspires valley Catholics to keep the faith | AspenTimes.com

Father Tom inspires valley Catholics to keep the faith

Just when many Roaring Fork Valley Catholics needed something to refresh their faith, Father Tom Bradtke delivered.

While national attention has been fixed on a handful of priests around the country who are accused in sex scandals, local Catholics recently honored Bradtke for 40 years of good works and conduct befitting a man of God.

He is, a Basalt parishioner recently said, “one of the very best.”

“Father Tom,” as he is known, celebrated the 40th anniversary of his ordination as a priest last month. About 350 of his current and former parishioners attended a barbecue in Carbondale in his honor.

Father Tom grew up in Chicago, where he was ordained in 1962 and served for eight years as a priest. But he’s regarded Colorado as a little slice of heaven for the last 32 years.

“I just love the outdoors,” said Bradtke. “I used to do a lot of backpacking and rafting.”

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He was the parish priest in Basalt from 1970 to 1976; served Aspen from 1981 to 1991; transferred to Glenwood Springs from 1992 to 1996; and returned to Basalt in 1999. He has also served the parishes in Kremmling and Evergreen, Colo.

It appears that divine intervention brought him to the valley. He got sick after visiting Mexico in the late 1960s and took a sabbatical from duties in Chicago to recover in Colorado.

“I extended my one year to 32 years,” he said with a smile.

He points out a blue spruce and thick aspen tree towering over the two-story former rectory in Basalt. Bradtke recalled the spruce was less than 8 feet tall when he planted it more than three decades ago.

Like the trees, the parish has flourished. Both St. Vincent parish in Basalt and St. Mary’s of the Crown in Carbondale are rapidly growing, in large part due to the influx of Latinos.

A Spanish-speaking nun and priest help Father Tom attend to the needs of the diverse parishes. “Without that I would find it overwhelming,” he said.

Father Tom said he has enjoyed serving every parish where he works and he has enjoyed the nuances of the different towns. The common highlight, he said, has been “the support of the people” and evidence of faith at work.

Since allegations have besieged the Catholic Church about some priests sexually abusing youth and bishops covering for them, Father Tom has urged his parishioners in sermons to place their faith in their religion rather than a particular priest, bishop or even the pope.

While the issue reflects on the entire religion, he noted that only a small fraction of priests are believed to be involved in the sex scandals. He believes the Catholic religion will withstand the tests of this crisis.

“Most, if not 100 percent (of local parishioners), have shown support,” he said.

He believes some changes are inevitable. A greater role “can and will be played” by lay people in the administration of multimillion-dollar jurisdictions called dioceses.

Changes are also needed to deal with the acute shortage of priests that especially affects smaller parishes around the country. Many rural parishes share a priest and some have seen their churches close.

“Many priests would say it is time to allow priests to be married,” said Father Tom, noting it was allowed up to the 11th century.

Father Tom has found numerous occasions to celebrate and console in the Roaring Fork Valley. He celebrated Mass on Storm King Mountain with families of firefighters who lost their lives there. He helped St. Mary’s parish celebrate a century of worship in 1982.

He has prepared young couples for marriage in Aspen, then oversaw their kids’ first communions downvalley years later.

He’s famous among parish youth for the rafting trips he would arrange on the Colorado River and houseboat travels on Lake Powell.

“I think the world of him,” said Joanna Schaffner, who first met Father Tom in Aspen 13 years ago and has gone on several of his river trips.

She recalled that he would wake the people on the trip early in the morning and celebrate Mass on the beach, reflecting on how Jesus would celebrate Mass on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

He has been a real benefit to the Catholics of the Roaring Fork Valley, Schaffner said. She recalled that St. Mary’s in Aspen was full and not an eye was dry when Father Tom left there.

“It’s amazing he’s been able to stay in the valley as long as he has,” she said.

At age 65, Father Tom has no immediate plans for retirement. However, he looks forward to when he can shed the responsibilities of constant meetings and perpetual fund-raising to concentrate on celebrating Mass.

His perfect “retirement,” he said, would be living in the Roaring Fork Valley and filling in for priests throughout the Western Slope when they are on vacation or at special meetings.

For now, he sticks to a hectic schedule of worship, counseling and goodwill.

“We’re kind of on duty 24 hours a day,” he said.