Browning priest wins honor for education work

By Kim Skornogoski
Great Falls, Montana (AP) October 2010

Last week, two of Browning’s street people sought out Reverend Ed Kohler – they didn’t ask for money, but rather a blessing. He put a hand on their shoulders and said a quiet prayer.

The men walked away with his blessing, but to ask Kohler, he’s the one who is blessed.

The Catholic Extension announced last week that Kohler is the recipient of the 2010 Lumen Christi Award, a prestigious national award given annually for the last 330 years to a Catholic who has dedicated his or her life to serving in dioceses across America that need help to sustain themselves.

Ordained in 1977, Kohler spent his first two years at St. Ann’s in Butte, followed by three years at St. Rose of Lima in Dillon.

Kohler first came to the Blackfeet Reservation in 1982. Outside of a five-year mission in Guatemala, he has never left.

“Once I got here, I realized I was born and bred for Browning,” he said. “I fit in and I love the people tremendously.”

Over the last nearly 30 years of his life, Kohler said he’s gotten to know the Blackfeet people better than his own family.

He attributes that to the parish’s embrace of the national Cursillo de Christiandad movement. Kohler said often between 70 to 80 people are volunteering or learning at one of six cursillos and follow-up meetings organized by the church each year.

Ninety percent of his parishioners have since attended the three-day cursillos of prayer, lecture, introspection and sharing – many of whom credit the retreats with having a profound influence on their lives.

“We have to do a lot of healing here,” Kohler said. “We feel the personal presence of the Lord in our midst. That motivates us to do what we do.”

His primary work is with Little Flower Parish in Browning, a place where 70 percent of the people are unemployed, nearly one third have drug or alcohol abuse problems and nine out of 10 children come from broken homes.

He also serves three mission sites: St. Mary’s in Babb, Chapel of the Ascension in East Glacier Park and Sacred Heart Mission in Starr School. For the last year, he also stepped in to minister to the St. Anne Parish 30 miles away in Heart Butte, when the reverend there had to leave for health reasons.

“He is an extraordinary gift to Little Flower Parish community and the Diocese of Helena, and has become a beacon of hope and inspiration to the communities he serves,” said Reverend Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension.

Seeing the power of the cursillos in helping the community’s adults, Kohler soon began looking for a way to similarly reach the area’s children.

Though it took 10 years of lobbying, he convinced the Christian Brothers to found the De La Salle Blackfeet School, which serves students in grades 4 through 8.

Currently the school has 67 students – most of whom pay little if anything for their education. The school relies on grants, donations and the Christian Brothers to pay for its $600,000 in annual expenses.

Though poor, it boasts an amazing record of success. To date, 27 of the school’s 29 alumni have graduated high school, compared to the current 56 percent high school graduation rate of Native Americans in Montana.

Brother Paul Ackerman, who is president of the Catholic school, said opening the school was a bold goal considering that so many De La Salle Schools are struggling to stay afloat that it’s rare to open a new one.

“He had faith that this was something that would be good for the reservation and the children,” Ackerman said last week. “So he went for it.”

Kohler’s goal is to eventually have enough funding for the school to be open to all grades. And he says the real success will be 10 years from now – when the oldest graduates, who are now sophomores in college return and make the Blackfeet Reservation a better place.

Ackerman said to achieve that goal, Kohler pours his heart into the weekly sermons he gives at the school, carefully looking at the students’ lesson plans to craft his message.

When Bishop George Leo Thomas of the Helena Diocese first approached Kohler, the Browning reverend initially waived off the nomination – then he learned it came with a cash reward.

“He didn’t want the prize for himself,” Ackerman notes. “He’s always looking out for the welfare of the school.”

Kohler decided to donate the $25,000 that came with the honor to the De La Salle Blackfeet School. Bishop Thomas is following suit, announcing that he would donate the $25,000 that goes to the diocese to Blackfeet youth ministry groups.

“Father Ed’s ministry impacts the Blackfeet people in pastorally sensitive ways, helping them to know that the light of Christ shines on them because each is one of God’s specially chosen people,” Thomas said.

Kohler also is credited with increasing the enrollment rate of the diocese’s Program of Formation for Lay Ministers, providing people the opportunity to develop leadership skills.

“It’s almost too much,” Kohler said of the honor. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful blessing to all of us here.”