Lee Bretzel, a retired barber and hairdresser, is 70 and has an affinity for St. Michael the Archangel, the angel among angels, whose job it is to battle Satan wherever he exists.
That’s a tall order for a man who knows his exact place in the ecclesial pecking order – someone standing in the need of prayer.
Bretzel will tell you straight out: He was married five times, none in a religious ceremony, and has six children, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He has traveled the world as a hairstylist in the theater, but the only thing that ever has given him true peace is this confounding idea, hatched as a child in Springfield, Missouri, that the Sacred Heart of Jesus was pierced for him.
Perhaps in April, when Father José Lavastida confirms him as a Catholic and he takes the name “Michael” during the Easter Vigil at Blessed Seelos Church, Bretzel will understand where the winding road is taking him.
Just a few weeks ago, Bretzel, who lives at Annunciation Inn, made his first confession and received his First Communion after meeting for months with Vincent Scozzari, the pastoral care director of Christopher Homes.
Now Bretzel has his heart set on becoming a Catholic monk.
“I’ve got a plan, and I want to petition for it just like I’ve petitioned for anything else,” Bretzel said. “Of course, I know I’ll have to sit with a priest and be questioned because they’ll want to know about my background and my marriages and about what took me so darned long. That’s all Catholic protocol, and I respect that. But I hope they would talk to God and see what he has to say about it. I know what mission I’m supposed to be on.”
Bretzel was baptized as young man in an Episcopalian church in Springfield, but his two best friends – adopted brothers of an elderly couple – were Catholic. During Lent, Bretzel, then 12, would go to their house. His friends’ mom would serve him fish, spinach and macaroni and cheese on Fridays, and she would take him to the Latin Mass on Sunday with her sons.
“This wonderful Catholic laywoman gave me this wonderful Catholic education,” Bretzel said. “I learned the ways of the church and the prayers. I had a rosary, which I kept to myself. I wouldn’t flaunt it in front of my family. Even when I went to the nondenominational church where I was baptized, I had a rosary in my pocket. When they were in the sanctuary, I would go downstairs, and I could hear the minister preaching. I would be praying the rosary.”
Bretzel said he knew intuitively that he was not oriented for marriage, which is a reason he never married in the church. But in his 50-plus years of work in the theater – working long hours and paying alimony and child support – the thought never left him that he was Catholic. He lost his oldest son two years ago to cancer.
The large portrait of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which he first saw hanging on the wall of his buddies’ home, continues to impact his life.
“I can remember the first time I laid eyes on the Sacred Heart, I was hooked,” Bretzel said. “That picture is the essence of what the Trinity was all about on earth. He was crucified, died and was buried and then was resurrected. That precious Sacred Heart was pierced for our raggedy souls. What’s not to love about that?”
Bretzel said the funniest thing about his official conversion to Catholicism is that all of his friends at Annunciation Inn thought he was Catholic all along. One of his favorite books is the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” which he keeps at his side.
“I can remember when the (Baltimore) catechism was this big,” he said, holding his thumb and index finger closely together. “With the new catechism, I just go to the glossary. You can’t read it from start to finish. That’s an impossibility. I love to read about the Catholic Church. It’s so rigid, but yet, it makes sense.”
So, what about this monk business?
“I know my age is against me,” Bretzel said, “but I know who’s in my corner, and I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. There isn’t a doubt in my mind except what took me so darned long.”
Does he have a preference as to which community he would belong?
“Anybody who would take me at this age,” Bretzel said. “I don’t care if I have to hammer coffins. I’ve got plenty of talent, and I don’t say that arrogantly. God has blessed me. I’m very creative. I can make roses out of mud. In a crisis, I’m the guy you want on your side because I have God in me. I don’t get excited. I just let it flow.
“I can cook, I can garden, I can milk cows. If you want me to stay on my knees and pray for 12 hours, I want to go. I’ve always heard the term ‘Jesus freak.’ Well, guess what, I’m a Jesus freak in love with the Sacred Heart. Is that a crime?”
Bretzel said God also has blessed him with an affability toward others, even those at his senior residence who may be difficult to love.
“I like them all, even the mean ones,” he said, smiling.
One resident, Bretzel said, kept his distance from others, rarely smiling and protecting himself from interaction by always walking with a yapping dog that seemed to carry his master’s personality. Bretzel saw the man struggling to get into his car one morning.
“My name is Lee,” Bretzel told the man, “and from now on, if you need any help you come and get me.”
“I’m surprised my dog didn’t bite you,” the man replied.
“If he did, I’d have bitten him back,” Bretzel said.
The man smiled.
“You know what?” Bretzel asked. “We have a chance every day we put our feet on the ground to be forgiven and spend the rest of our days with our maker. We can’t just go through the motions.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.