Priest remembered for addiction ministry

| May 23, 2018 | 0 Comments
Father Martin Fleming

Father Martin Fleming stands in front of one of the buildings at Bethany Village in this 2014 file photo. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Father Martin Fleming was known for his wit. His longtime secretary, Patricia Basel, said Father Fleming had a way of lightening the mood at just the right time. As a retired Army colonel, he never was one to back away from tension. Yet, he had a way of disarming the most intense conflicts with a funny line, she said.

“He never lost his Irish sense of humor,” said Basel, 83, who first met Father Fleming in 1965 while she was teaching children at a military base in Fairbanks, Alaska, where Father Fleming was serving as chaplain. “He would use it sometime if there was a discussion going on and if things were not going well. He would say something that everybody laughed at.”

Father Fleming died May 18 at age 91 at his home in St. Paul.

Despite the priest’s sense of humor, he took seriously helping people in need, particularly those caught in alcohol and drug addiction. After serving in the military in Alaska, Father Fleming, who was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1952, bought property on the corner of Summit and Western Avenues in St. Paul and used the four buildings to provide temporary housing for those in need, including people who were in addiction recovery. He named it Bethany Village and lived on the campus. He especially poured his time and energy into this outreach after retiring from parish ministry in 1992. He also co-founded Trinity Sober Homes, a residential program for alcoholics in recovery.

One of the people whom he helped was Robert Paulsen, who moved to Bethany Village in 2006 and still lives there, working as the property’s caretaker. He was touched by Father Fleming’s generosity, and he considers him a key part of his recovery.

“I was a drug addict and an alcoholic and came here for treatment at Hazelden,” said Paulsen, who is from North Carolina, referring to the renowned addiction treatment center in Center City. “You go from Hazelden to a halfway house for four months. After four months, I was kind of lost. So, landing here was good for me.

“I never thought I’d be friends with a priest,” he added. “But, he was a big influence. … He was a very affirming person. He was always thankful and grateful for what you did.”

That quality will be highlighted during his funeral Mass by Father Kevin McDonough, who will be the homilist. He got to know Father Fleming in 1993, while the older priest was serving as the archdiocese’s director of evangelization, a role he held from 1992-97. Archbishop John Roach asked the two to discuss evangelization in the Church. The dialogue went on for two years, with Father Fleming going to St. Peter Claver in St. Paul, where Father McDonough was pastor, for Sunday Mass. Sometimes, Father Fleming would sit in the pews just to take in the worship experience at the vibrant parish, popular with African-American Catholics.

“That gave me a chance to get to know him as a brother priest and also to find out why it was that evangelization was at the forefront for him,” Father McDonough said.

It also provided an opportunity for some encouragement and uplifting words.

“He would pick out the things that he thought I was doing well … and constantly affirm them,” Father McDonough said. “And, of course, in the process, he was able to direct and shape and encourage me. He led by encouragement and by example.”

Father Fleming grew up in St. Paul and followed in the footsteps of two older brothers who also were ordained priests — Father John Fleming and Msgr. Francis Fleming. Both were ordained in 1942.

A fourth brother, Peter, also was ordained a priest, but later left the priesthood. Father John Fleming died in 2004 as a priest of the Diocese of New Ulm, and Msgr. Francis Fleming, pastor of St. Olaf for 28 years, died in 2006.

Father Martin Fleming served as a military chaplain for 32 years, with one year in Vietnam during the war. He also ministered at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, St. Mary in Shakopee and St. Pius X in White Bear Lake. He won The Catholic Spirit’s annual Leading with Faith Award in 2016 for his work in addiction recovery.

Paulsen noted that Father Fleming died during the annual tulip bloom. The priest loved beauty, both inside and out. Bethany Village always featured attractive landscaping and artwork that Father Fleming collected over the years.

But, to people like Paulsen and Basel, the real beauty of the place was the priest who always had a smile and a kind word for everyone.

“His smile, his affirmation, the sparkle in his eyes — he was just such a good guy,” Paulsen said. “It’s like the heart of Bethany Village has gone.”

His funeral Mass will be 10 a.m. June 2 at St. Olaf in Minneapolis.

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