Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

On Friday, May 26, Fr. Dean Buttrick received the Lumen Christi Award from Superior’s Cathedral School, an honor to which he expressed his unworthiness. The amber glass award, curved into the shape of an open flame, now resides on a simple table, the only adornment in the priest’s room at a nursing home in Coon Rapids, Minnesota.

“Heart and soul.” These two words were those chosen by Fr. Andy Ricci, rector of Christ the King Cathedral, to introduce Fr. Buttrick at the award banquet. He recounted the conversations he and Fr. Buttrick would have at priest gatherings in which the older priest would ask the younger about parishioners in churches where both have served.

“He wears his heart on his sleeve and cares deeply for the people he had served,” Fr. Ricci said. “It’s a beautiful example, my brother, that you gave me and continue to show about what it means to be a parish priest. To have a love for your parish and the people within it.”

Asking where that love comes from, Fr. Ricci answered it was Fr. Buttrick’s deep relationship with each person of the Trinity. Before inviting him to receive the award and offer remarks, he thanked him “for your witness, example, and modeling of discipleship. You are a light of Christ!”

The following morning, May 27, Fr. Buttrick celebrated the 60th anniversary of his own priesthood at St. Anthony’s Church in Superior.

Surrounded by family and friends, Fr. Buttrick celebrated one of his last public Masses in the diocese and preached one of his last homilies. With a series of health issues and hospitalizations over the summer, the priest was moved to a home in Coon Rapids, where he is receiving hospice care. In an interview with the Catholic Herald in late October, he admitted to missing being able to celebrate Mass.

“The Eucharist has always been central to my spirituality,” he commented. “It’s the ultimate high point.”

He added that the other key element in his relationship with God is daily prayer, although he admitted that, while he considers serving God’s people as an act of prayer, keeping a routine of personal prayer was challenging.

“I was ordained to bring people to Christ and get them to accept Christ as their Lord and savior,” Fr. Buttrick said. “I tried to do everything in regard to the people, making my life a prayer.

“But I can see, looking back, that I would get immersed in doing for people and forgetting that I needed to pray first. You can get too active doing the Lord’s work, not feeding yourself first,” he concluded.

Fr. Buttrick was born June 5, 1936, in Green Bay. With a father in the banking industry, he attended early elementary school in Birchwood and then attended St. Louis Catholic School in Washburn through the eighth grade.

Looking back, the priest can see the hand of the Holy Spirit throughout his life, directing various circumstances. “He was there all the time,” the priest said.

The first promptings and thoughts of the priesthood came to him during fifth and sixth grade. There had even been conversations with his parents about attending a minor seminary for high school, but towards the end of eighth grade, an injury added a detour.

Hit hard by a swing on the playground, he sat out the rest of the game and was then invited by the religious sister to go serve Mass. Later, as headaches and nausea continued, it was discovered that he had injured a vertebral disc. The alternative to surgery, which only had a 50-percent success rate, was to lie flat on his back for six months. A second opinion gave the same prognosis for the 14-year-old who had planned on going to seminary high school that fall.

Fortunately, he was able to sit for short periods and keep up with schoolwork. The efforts were successful for the disc’s healing, and in a turn of providence, he ended up enrolling at the minor seminary with the Crozier Fathers in Onamia, Minnesota, near Lake Millacs, not the original school he had planned on.

Following graduation, the seminarian continued on to St. Procopius Major Seminary in Lisle, Illinois, and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Superior on May 1, 1963, in the midst of the Second Vatican Council taking place in Rome.

Fr. Buttrick recalled the involvement of Bishop Albert Meyer, who had been bishop of the Superior Diocese from 1946-1953 and with whom he had consulted in choosing a minor seminary. Bishop Meyer, the only bishop of this diocese to later be named a cardinal, was very active in the Council proceedings and a great spokesman during the last two sessions, particularly active in liturgical reforms.

Recalling all the questions he and fellow seminarians had for their liturgy professor, especially on liturgical renewal, Fr. Buttrick said, smiling, “We drove him nuts.” There was so much information swirling around, ideas on renewal, but it took time for the official doctrine and promulgation from the Council.

“I had no problem going from Latin to English,” he added. “I felt that was best for the people to understand.” He also shared how there were a small handful of priests in the diocese, “moving ahead faster than the pope and bishops. I could see they were going too far, doing things that the Council never said.”

He admitted there were innovations that took hold faster and stronger than the foundational doctrine the Council fathers carefully crafted, and encouraged, even now, that people “just read the documents to find out what the Council” was trying to do.

He said that Pope John XXIII had made clear the church’s mission “is to evangelize the world with the precious gift of what the church teaches.” He wanted to open the church and the world up to a better understanding and living of that.

After ordination, Fr. Buttrick’s first assignment was at St. Francis de Sales in Spooner. During his years of active parish ministry, Fr. Buttrick would also serve in the communities of Shell Lake and Sarona, Trego, Rhinelander, Merrill, Superior (where he also taught at Cathedral High School) and Lake Nebagamon, Glidden, Clam Lake, Highbridge and Sanborn as well as Cable and Hayward, where we continued to help after his retirement. He had also served at the diocesan level as dean, presbyteral council member, spiritual director, Knights of Columbus chaplain and vocations director.

His last ministry was as liaison for the Diocesan Charismatic Renewal, a role especially dear to him. Fr. Buttrick’s involvement with the Renewal began while he was in Rhinelander as associate pastor. A Benedictine priest, a relative of Fr. Samuel Schneider, introduced him while the religious was on a home visit offering a prayer session. By that point, Fr. Buttrick had already read quite a bit, but it wasn’t until later that he was immersed in and deepened his own relationship with the Holy Spirit. From then on he was “fully engaged,” and is pleased to see the strength of the movement in the diocese now.

Asked how Catholics can best support their parish priests, Fr. Buttrick responded, “Pray for them. Pray for the faithful in the parish they are serving.”

He also encouraged supporting what the pastors are trying to do to strengthen and enliven the faith. “Offer your talents and abilities… give back with the gifts God has given them. It’s all for building up the kingdom of God the Father. Jesus came to bring enlightenment on what the Kingdom is, and parishioners contribute with their abilities and talents, cooperating in the kingdom, here and now… helping to bring back the original blessing that humans had before the fall of Adam and Eve.”

In a final commentary on death as he nears the end of his own life, Fr. Buttrick calmly said that death is not something to be afraid of or uncomfortable talking about, “because we are children of God. We know, and Jesus promised, that this life is to prepare us to be ready for the next life.”

As the funeral rite states, life if not ended but changed, he continued, “We pass from what his life has been to what the afterlife will be in full relationship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is something we should, like the saints, have the perspective of looking forward to something that is going to be wonderful and great.

“The only time we need to fear death is if we’re not in right relationship with God, but otherwise, like the saints, we can live with the realization that we’re passing into that fullness of sharing the kingdom with the Trinity. If you know who you’re going to – what’s there to be afraid of?”

Fr. Dean Buttrick, priest of the Diocese of Superior, is pictured with the 2023 Lumen Christi Award he was presented with at a dinner at the UW-Superior YellowJacket Union Great Room on May 26. (Photo credit: Images by Carolyn Jones)