by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It was an unusual question, and it took Father Joseph Arsenault, SSA, by surprise.
He was at a Mass on Aug. 28 at St. Mary-St. Anthony Parish in Kansas City, Kansas, during which Brother Elias Thelen professed first vows to become a member of the Society of St. Augustine.
Afterwards, a Sister asked him a question.
“She said to me, ‘So, how does it feel to have a son now?’” said Father Joseph, who was Brother Elias’ novice master.
“And I said, ‘I feel very proud,’” said Father Joseph, who is the archdiocesan ecumenical officer and works in the tribunal office. “He’s a wonderful, wonderful young man. He’s filled with the faith and just really wants to seek God.”
The entry of Brother Elias into the Society of St. Augustine, a public association of the faithful, represents a kind of Augustinian renaissance in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
The Order of Augustinian Recollects ended their 63-year history in the archdiocese when they sold their monastery at 33rd and Parallel Parkway in Kansas City, Kansas, on Dec. 18, 1986.
Some OAR members formed a new entity, the Society of St. Augustine, in 1981 in Texas. The SSA established itself in the archdiocese in 1996, with the arrival of Father Peter Jaramillo, SSA, and Brother Thomas Akers, SSA.
Currently, the priory of St. Augustine consists of Father Peter Jaramillo, SSA, the prior and current pastor of St. Mary-St. Anthony, St. John the Baptist and Holy Family, all in Kansas City, Kansas; Father John Melnick, SSA, the subprior and a teacher at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas; Father Joseph; and their new “son,” who is also like a new brother in the family: Brother Elias, whose religious name is “Brother Elias del Socorro Nieves of the Sacred Heart.”
Brother Elias — formerly Bryan Patrick Thelen — was born and raised in Shawnee. His parents Phil and Terri Thelen and his siblings Megan and Jeff were all members of St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee. He went to the parish school and then to St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, graduating in 2008.
The thought occurred to him as a fifth-grader, while serving Mass, that he might want to be a priest someday. That went away but it returned while he was a junior at Aquinas.
“I was kind of set on entering [the] seminary for the archdiocese after high school, but my parents encouraged me to go to university first. So I went to the University of Kansas and got really involved in the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center there,” said Brother Elias.
He learned about religious orders there and, after his junior year, began discerning and looked at religious communities. He left KU to become a postulant with the Norbertine Order in California for a time, but realized that it wasn’t for him. He returned to KU to finish his degree, spending time studying in Germany. He graduated in August 2012 with a bachelor of arts in German with a minor in French.
Brother Elias began teaching German at Aquinas, but the thought of joining a religious order wouldn’t go away. He began receiving spiritual direction from Father Joseph Arsenault, but didn’t think he wanted to join the Augustinians.
“I was saying, ‘Gosh, Father Joseph, I feel so at home here [with the Augustinians], I want to be called to this community,’” he said. “‘It feels right, but I’m just not sure.’ And he kind of laughed and said, ‘Think about what you just said.’”
Brother Elias decided to move in to experience their communal life in the summer of 2014 and, on Aug. 27, he entered the novitiate.
What followed was a lot of study and prayer. Now, as a junior professed living temporary vows, he has three years before he can ask to take final vows.
“I still feel called to the priesthood,” said Brother Elias. “That’s something my community knows and they also have to discern with me.”
Brother Elias brings some wonderful things to their community, said Father Joseph.
“He brings two very important elements to the community,” he said. “The first thing he brings is his youth and enthusiasm. The second thing he brings to the community — which is extremely important and really is why he’s such a great fit — is his great desire to seek God and to seek God with others, which really is who we are.”
Brother Elias also brings a higher profile. His students at Aquinas have asked him a lot of questions.
“Yes, especially last year when I first showed up in the habit,” said Brother Elias. “They were very curious — kind of: ‘What is the habit, why are you doing what you’re doing, what is a Brother and what do you do?’”
Some wondered if he could celebrate Mass.
“I told them to think of everything a priest does in the church,” said Brother Elias. “I told them, ‘I can’t do any of that.’ Religious are consecrated to God, and that is our first calling. Most of the kids thought it was really cool. They love the habit. They think I look like a Jedi Knight, which is hilarious.”
Brother Elias is personable, a thinker, has a great sense of humor and is always looking forward, said Father Joseph. It’s great to have him in the family.
“St. Augustine called together a group of friends to seek God together,” said Father Joseph. “That’s what we strive to be. We’re a group of people who come together in friendship to seek God together. We try to be a family, because it’s important for us to relate to each other in those terms.”