Growing up in a devoutly Catholic household in southern Indiana, the six Etienne siblings probably never imagined that four of them would end up choosing vocations to consecrated religious life. But today, two of the siblings are married with children, while the rest have devoted their lives to serving the Church: Father Bernie Etienne ’93, Archbishop Paul Etienne of the Archdiocese of Seattle, Benedictine Sister Nicolette Etienne and Father Zach Etienne ’04.
So how did it happen? Fellow Mundelein alumni Father Zach and Father Bernie recently reflected on that question and on their experience of seminary formation and priestly ministry.
“We were in a good environment to discern religious life,” said Father Bernie, pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in the Diocese of Evansville. “We were pretty steeped in the culture of the Catholic Church growing up, but we were all late vocations, so it wasn’t that we had priestly or religious life forced on us. Our parents would have been deeply supportive if we had chosen a different career path or a different vocation. We had such a good foundation that I think it gave us the freedom to discern this call.”
Even before the siblings took the plunge, religious vocations were already part of their family life.
Two of the Etienne brothers recorded an interview about their vocations to the priesthood and their family connection as brothers. Father Bernie Etienne ’93 and Father Zach Etienne ’04 share their story in the following video interview.
“Mom’s brother was a priest with the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and her sister is a Benedictine nun, so we always saw the human side of the priesthood and religious life,” said Father Zach, pastor of Good Shepherd Catholic Parish in the Diocese of Evansville. “It would be nothing to have a Sunday party at our house and have a priest show up and say Mass in the back yard. We thought all Catholic families did that, but it turns out we were just weird.”
Having siblings in “the family business” of the priesthood provides a built-in fraternal support system, but also made for some unexpected situations and maybe a little sibling rivalry. When Father Zach began to discern his call, his older brothers were already serving as vocations directors and hoping he would choose to enroll in seminary for their respective diocese — Father Bernie in Evansville and Archbishop Paul in Indianapolis. Evansville ultimately won out.
“The nice thing, too, is that it wasn’t long after that battle that Paul got removed as vocations director,” Father Bernie joked.When he moved into Mundelein Seminary, Father Zach recalls other seminarians reacting to the peculiar sight of a vocations director installing carpet in his room, not realizing that Father Bernie was his brother.
Both brothers have positive memories of their time at Mundelein Seminary, where they gained experiences and established friendships that have sustained them throughout their priestly ministry.
“In those years that I was there in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the formation team of priests were just wonderful role models,” Father Bernie said. “They made you feel like a peer in one sense, but they were on another plane, and I just really admired those men. There’s a long line of priests that had a tremendous influence on me.”
Father Zach said he values the friendships he made with his classmates at the seminary. A group of them have regularly traveled together on vacation over the years, and they connected frequently via Zoom calls to support one another throughout the pandemic. For Father Zach, relationships are at the heart of why he loves being a priest.
“The priesthood allows you to dive into the intimacy of relationships and get to the heart of who people really are,” he said. “People would never share the things with ‘Zach’ that they have shared with ‘Zach the priest,’ and it has been a huge blessing.”
As Father Bernie approaches 30 years of priestly ministry, he said he finds peace in the idea that God is putting him exactly where he is meant to be.
“Mundelein really prepared me for pastoral ministry, and I’m very grateful for the tools that I was given,” he said. “It hasn’t always been easy, but I know this is what I was called to do. If you like a nice challenge, priesthood is a good life.”