Brother Basil Rothweiler: Celebrating 80 years of ministry

| September 24, 2014 | 0 Comments
Christian Brother Basil Rothweiler recently celebrated his 80th jubilee at the Little Sisters of the Poor Holy Family Residence in St. Paul. Among his assignments during his years of ministry were positions as principal at both DeLaSalle High School and then Cretin High School. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Christian Brother Basil Rothweiler recently celebrated his 80th jubilee at the Little Sisters of the Poor Holy Family Residence in St. Paul. Among his assignments during his years of ministry were positions as principal at both DeLaSalle High School and then Cretin High School. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Barry Lieske was invited to interview for a girls basketball coaching job at DeLaSalle High School in 1979.

After deciding to give school administrators the chance to woo him, he ran into a surprising obstacle as he headed to the Minneapolis school located on Nicollet Island:

He couldn’t find it.

“I went by the school a couple times before I realized it’s on an island, and the only way to get there was over the Hennepin Avenue bridge,” he said.

Finally, he found his way into the parking lot and entered the building. Inside waited the man who would shape his career — and his life — for the next four decades: Christian Brother Basil Rothweiler, who came to the school in 1977 and was fighting to keep the school from closing.

Lieske learned during the interview that Brother Basil was relentless when it came to securing what — and who — the school needed.

“I met with Brother Basil, and he just would not take no for an answer,” Lieske said. “He had the [team] captains come in and meet with me. Really, I wasn’t looking to be a high school girls basketball coach. But, something impressed me about Basil’s commitment and his determination to get what was needed for the school and for the girls that were here. So, I relented and said, ‘OK, I’ll coach them this year.’?”

After a couple seasons, the school offered Lieske a full-time job as dean of students and athletic director. Varsity coaching positions in football and track were added to his girls basketball post.

Today, Lieske is president of the school, having replaced Brother Michael Collins after he died in 2012. Gone are the days of having to beg and borrow to keep the school afloat. DeLaSalle has an annual operating budget of $8 million and runs in the black every year, Lieske said. This year’s enrollment is 772 students in grades nine through 12, almost double the number Brother Basil had when he started.

What happened at DeLaSalle is just one example of how Brother Basil has served places in need. He recently celebrated his 80th jubilee at the Little Sisters of the Poor Holy Family Residence in St. Paul, where he has spent the last several years.

At age 97, he continues to inspire his many friends, some of whom visit regularly to remain connected to the man whose passion for the brothers and their Lasallian tradition carries on at several high schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“I met Brother Basil 25 years ago when I came to Cretin-Derham Hall [High School in St. Paul],” said school president Richard Engler, who had daily contact with Brother Basil at Mass and prayer services, with Brother Basil living at the brothers’ residence adjacent to the school and helping in the development office during retirement. “He just was the kindest, gentlest man I’ve ever met. The way he treated me and other people, the spirituality he has, he to me was a walking saint, a living saint. That’s what I would call him.”

‘Doing God’s work’

It all started when Brother Basil, whose given name is Gilbert Theodore Rothweiler, was 17 and a senior at Messmer High School in Milwaukee, Wis. He found out that a group of high school students from Chicago was going on a weekend visit the brothers were hosting at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona, which the brothers began operating just a year or two before.

Brother Basil boarded the bus as the only student from his school.

“We played basketball and touch football and just had a wonderful weekend with the Christian Brothers from the two Chicago schools,” Brother Basil recalled. “At the end of the whole deal, I said, ‘What would I do if I wanted to become a Christian Brother?’ They said, ‘Well, write to the novice director.’ Just as simple as that. It was a go because they were looking for students.”

In those days, it was common for people to join a religious order right out of high school, some even attending high schools run by brothers because of their interest in religious life.

After finishing his formation at the brothers’ facility in Glencoe, Mo., Brother Basil entered the education field. It didn’t take long for him to rise to leadership positions. He became president of St. Mary’s in 1956 and held other top positions along the way, including provincial of the Midwest Province.

He was principal at Cretin High School from 1970-’77 before moving to DeLaSalle, where he served as principal from 1977 to 1984. He returned to Cretin-Derham Hall to work in the development office from 1988 to 1994.

Brother Basil had a hand in saving DeLaSalle, which was struggling when he arrived.

“This school could have closed, and maybe even should have closed,” Lieske said. “Our budget was in deficit, the archdiocese was saying, ‘We’re not able to help you. You need to handle your own finances.’ And, Basil just would not let us close, would not let it fail.”

Brother Basil kept the doors open by keeping a firm grip on the simple idea that he was, according to Lieske, “doing God’s work.” That conviction brought him to the school at 6 a.m. every day and kept him there until 10 p.m.

Lieske was in the office next door, working similar hours and spending lots of time talking — and praying — with the man who taught him how to navigate disciplinary issues during a time when rebellious behavior was rampant in American culture.

“I just can’t emphasize enough that he just had a drive. He was not going to let anything get in the way of educating young people, especially the poor,” Lieske said. “Brother Basil, I see as a giant . . . not just locally, but in the world. He lived, he fought, he put in those midnight hours trying to make sure things worked out.

“He was, at the beginning, a teacher, and always a teacher. He taught me, he taught me to teach others. He taught me to pass on his impact on people. He was a lighthouse, but he got others to become lighthouses, too. He inspired people to take up the hard work of educating young people at a time when they didn’t want to be educated.”

Early in his career at DeLaSalle, Lieske learned that he wasn’t the only person who had trouble saying no to Brother Basil.

He recalled a time when the two visited a local steel yard to find some metal pieces to repair a shed. Brother Basil boldly strode in, asked for the person in charge, and proceeded to solicit a gift of steel.

Later, he called in a DeLaSalle alum, Russ Dalsin, by now a successful businessman, to help finance vans to shuttle the sports teams to games. After a conversation with Brother Basil, Dalsin wrote a check to cover the cost of two 15-passenger vans.

Along with being an ardent fundraiser, Brother Basil was a tireless promoter of religious vocations, especially to the Christian Brothers.

“He wanted me to join the brothers my first year here,” Lieske said. “I wasn’t married yet. He asked every young man to join the brothers. Every young man I ever knew that he knew, he took it upon himself to invite them.”

In Lieske’s case, there was one problem back in 1979 — he wasn’t Catholic.

Raised Methodist, he was devout in his denomination. But, that eventually changed after several years at DeLaSalle. First, he married a Catholic, Barbara Loso, who had graduated from the school two years before he arrived. Then, he had conversations with a priest serving as chaplain at the school. Those people, along with, of course, support from Brother Basil, led to Lieske joining the Church in the mid-1980s.

Lieske now jokes that the only reason Brother Basil let him off the hook of joining the brothers was the fact that he married a DeLaSalle alum. And, Brother Basil would no doubt be pleased that Lieske’s three daughters all graduated from DeLaSalle.

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