August 15, 2014 — Jesuit Father Brian Paulson’s childhood in northern Illinois nurtured and inspired his Jesuit vocation. The third of six children, with two brothers and three sisters, Fr. Paulson grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, where he learned the value of family, faith and hard work. These lessons have carried him through his life as a Jesuit, from vocation director to high school president to his new role as provincial of the Chicago-Detroit Province Jesuits.
His parents were both from Waukegan, and they had strong ties to the area. Fr. Paulson attended the same Catholic grade school that his father had — walking by both his grandmothers’ houses each day on his way. His mom’s only sister raised seven kids just two houses away. And the Paulsons owned a family restaurant, The Parkway, in their hometown for 53 years, where Fr. Paulson and his siblings worked during high school and college. “It was a very formative experience,” says Fr. Paulson, who worked as a busboy, waiter, host and even dishwasher.
Following another family tradition led Fr. Paulson to the Jesuits. Fr. Paulson attended Campion Jesuit High School in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, a boarding school that his father and older brother attended. “Some people think of being sent to boarding school as a punishment, but we thought of it as a treat, a privilege really,” recalls Fr. Paulson.
Fr. Paulson with family
The Jesuits at Campion were great role models for Fr. Paulson. “They seemed very happy and enjoyed each other’s company, and they could speak with familiarity about God.” Today, Fr. Paulson’s Campion connections are still present — two Jesuits he met there, Fr. Daniel McDonald and Fr. Al DiUlio, are on his current provincial staff.
When Campion closed after Fr. Paulson’s second year, he transferred to another Jesuit high school, Loyola Academy, in Wilmette, Illinois. At both schools, he developed his love for social studies, political science, history and French. While he was already thinking about joining the Society of Jesus during high school, he knew he wanted to see the world and go to college first. Given his academic interests and his burgeoning Jesuit vocation, Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service was the perfect fit.
After graduating Georgetown, Fr. Paulson entered the Jesuit novitiate in Berkley, Michigan, in 1981. “Anything else I thought about doing in life would have felt like I was playing house or running away,” Fr. Paulson says. “I feel like I’ve been blessed from a very young age of a lively sense of who God is. God’s presence has been very real and accessible to me, so if I could help share that gift with other people, I would love to be able to do that.”
More specifically, Fr. Paulson saw the power of a Jesuit high school and college education to change hearts and minds. “I wanted to be a part of that team that would do that for the next generation,” he says.
His first experience on the other side of Jesuit education was during regency, when Fr. Paulson spent three years at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, teaching economics and U.S. history, coaching debate and coordinating music for school liturgies. The experience would shape his future work as he realized he wanted to work in Jesuit high schools rather than higher education.
Fr. Paulson next studied theology in Paris, where he received a Bachelor of Sacred Theology from Centre Sèvres. He returned to the U.S. and completed a master’s degree in education from Harvard and a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology. During his two years in Boston, which included his first year as a priest, he also had the chance to preach at a children’s Mass at a local parish each Sunday. “Even though I don’t think God meant me to be a father of children 24/7, I discovered I’m very good at preaching to children’s Masses,” he says. “I learned that if you preach well to children, the adults actually understand.”
Finished with his degrees, Fr. Paulson was named vocation director for his province, which was “a real curveball because I thought of myself as being more of an administrator and being pretty analytical.” But the experience proved rewarding. “It helped me to get my head and heart together in a way that probably Jesuit superiors were trying to help me do all throughout my earlier formation,” Fr. Paulson says.
After serving as vocation director for five years, Fr. Paulson was selected as president of St. Ignatius College Prep, where he had taught as a scholastic. “I loved being president of St. Ignatius. I rediscovered what I had experienced in regency — that that the men and women who constitute the adult community at the school are wonderful people to minister with.”
Fr. Paulson says that being a president of a Jesuit high school is about three things: God, money and education. “All three are important. Not a lot of priests really understand money, but I do because of my family business background and my economics training,” he says. “First and foremost I thought of myself as pastor of the community but I also partnered with the principal to guide the educational project and partnered with my finance and fundraising staff to guide the financial side of the school.”
He also forged strong bonds with students, going on service trips, attending Kairos retreats and writing tons of college recommendation letters, and he looks forward to many years of marrying graduates from his time as president.
When he finished serving as president of St. Ignatius in 2010, Fr. Paulson headed to Loyola University Chicago to serve as rector of the Jesuit community of about 75 men. Fr. Paulson’s role was to help individual Jesuits thrive in their missions, whether as students or professors. Fr. Paulson also had the chance to preach to younger children again, celebrating Mass regularly at Sacred Heart Elementary School near Loyola’s campus.
As Fr. Paulson begins his new role as provincial, his past experiences and his varied skillset will be assets, as well as the “excellent team” he’s inherited from his predecessor, Jesuit Father Timothy Kesicki. He also has a clear road map to follow, given that he will oversee the joining of the Chicago-Detroit and Wisconsin Provinces in three years. Most importantly though, he has the support of his family — both related and the family he’s made through his vocation: former students, co-workers and alumni and his Jesuit brothers.