Repinski: Paying tribute to Father Paul Nelson

Published 4:19 pm Thursday, July 14, 2016

By Marv Repinski

Retired Prespiterian Minister

My memory goes back some years, standing in a line of persons to participate in the holy experience of the Christian Eucharist (in Methodism, we often refer to this rite as Holy Communion.). Standing by me was my wife, Becky, and together we were drawn closer to the mystery of the Presence of Jesus Christ by participating in the Sacrament.

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As with a vast number, and knowing the larger Christian community of Austin, I know of the many who received the Eucharist from the hand and blessing of Father Nelson. I still remain thankful.

If one were to define character, certainly the proclamation of mercy and forgiveness would be part of the definition. These were marks that shaped Father Nelson’s life.

In writing this tribute, I give a pastoral hug to my brother in the ministry. Some will say, “I suppose with a ski on your last name, you are Polish, which means that you are Catholic.” Answering according to the creeds of the church, I am Catholic — small c or large C!

In his grand ecumenical expansion and one who affirmed Christian Unity, the Reverend Nelson saw to it that open doors were the doors that Christ the Savior would open to all sincere seekers who prayed for the will of God.

While a student at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, the master’s degree didn’t mean as much to me as the celebration of the Mass and receiving of Communion with all who had no quibbles (I assume) with doctrinal and hierarchical stuff.

We were all welcome to the altar of our shared Lord who proclaimed, “Whosoever will” (Bible!), with dividing labels replaced with a welcome! A kind of motto we shared: Cherish tradition, but don’t get locked into it!

The creative and changing theologies of most churches and denominations continue to unfold, as human needs, compassion and study encourage the maturity that is necessary.

While priestly education of Father Nelson was received at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary, I was formed by St. John’s University, where training of persons both Catholic and Protestant, is offered. Add to that, my degree from Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, and you are not surprised that Father Nelson and I joined hands in our ecumenical focus — that is, a shared unifying purpose. Ecumenism can best be demonstrated by action: an example, the coordinated project that resulted in the St. John’s Bible copy in the Austin Public Library.

We were both refreshed and worked for new commitments based on the scholarship, the prayers, empathy and conversations at St. John’s Seminary in Collegeville. That was a primary source of Vatican II, which was viewing the roots and future of a universal church. Note that these documents were embraced by a small town farm boy — Paul.

They were also embraced by a rag-tag blue collar railroad worker’s son — Marvin. Why do you honor this priest, you ask? Because the ecumenical spirit, the prayer for ONE Holy Catholic Church is in my bones! About being a priest/clergy person, there is an ideal. Maybe at times, it causes fracture and being short of the goal? The goal that the saints and women like Dorothy Day and men like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have exhibited. Father Nelson was a man of sympathy, heartfelt care, a teacher who was searching the social scene for places that can be made more just.

In re-reading the Fyodor Dostoevsky book, Notes From the Underground, I wish I could be at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church sitting in the office of Paul Nelson. I would share — and he would listen with penetrating eyes, as I might read: “For a moment, I remained alone. The general disorder in the room, the remains of the dinner, the broken wine glass on the floor, the cigarette stubs, the fumes of wine, and the delirium in my head, the piercing anguish in my heart, and finally, the waiter who had seen and heard everything and was now peering curiously into my eyes.” In citing those words, I would today converse with Father Nelson. He would, I believe, say, “ I have known that waiter — I have known hundreds of those waiters in southern Minnesota, and I have offered, by my life, an invitation to know my love, but greater still, the love of God reflected in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Father Nelson, at the age of 81, died on June 25, 2016. His memoir — A Priest From the Prairies of Minnesota, was published by Grandoc Publishing, and may be purchased by emailing

Marvin Repinski is a retired United Methodist pastor who lives in Austin.