Brother Joe Steen: Loving the ordinary

Mission Life

Brother Joe Steen: Loving the ordinary

Glenmary Brother Joe Steen, right, supervises construction of St. John Paul II Catholic Church in Rutledge, Tenn.

Brother Joe Steen and St. Joseph have more than a name in common. St. Joseph was a carpenter, and so is Brother Joe. St. Joseph must have been a nice guy too. And both of the Josephs were and are hopeful men, dreamers, and big fans of Jesus. 

Brother Joe, a missioner since 1968, has made a career of quietly building churches and helping people in Glenmary areas who are in need. 

During this yearlong observance of the “unsung hero” (Pope Francis’ words) we asked Brother Joe a few questions about this patron of religious brothers. We caught up with him on the construction site of St. John Paul II church in Rutledge, Tenn.

Q: Is it true that you always have a little St. Joseph statue on the building site?

A: Oh, there’s one right here! It was a tradition with the building crew that we put up a little statue of St. Joseph outside while we started the building. When the building got under roof, we moved St. Joseph inside. So he’s here, watching over us, until the building is finished. 

Q: Why did you do that?

Brother Joe Steen is known for his carpentry skills.

A: Of course he was a builder, a carpenter and patron of brothers. But he was humble, too. One of the things I love about St. Joseph is that he lived an ordinary life among extraordinary people. He really fulfilled his vocation by living that ordinary life, by raising his son and supporting his family every day. That’s a great example of how ordinary people become saints.

Q: I read sometimes about St. Joseph the dreamer. Do you connect with that?

A: I think St. Joseph was an ordinary Jewish builder who, by the grace of God, listened to those inspirations, the dreams about Mary, about where he was to go, and he obeyed. There isn’t a lot about questioning. He didn’t tell Mary, “Well, that’s a crazy story, that I need to uproot my family and move…,” but he was a listener. He could discern, this was from God.

Q: So what does Brother Joe draw from that? Are there practical ways today that St. Joseph influences that way you do things?

A: There is that whole sense of listening, watching, and a kind of modeling. I can’t help but marvel at St. Joseph going about his everyday life around these very, very extraordinary people, Mary and Jesus. What a gift!

It’s the same way in my life. I’ve been privileged to be around so many marvelous people, who have really been witnesses and examples to me. You know, God has treated me with kid gloves all my life because I don’t think God thinks I can handle very much! God has been extremely kind to me. I am grateful.

Q: Some tell me that you’re a man of prayer. Would you agree with that?

A: Well, I would hope that as you get older you get wiser. I’ve always had a big mouth, but listening and quiet has become much, much more important to me. I’ve always been busy, but it’s important to just stop and do nothing, in a good sense. Now I’ve only got a few things in my room.

Q: So you live a simple lifestyle?

A: Yeah. It’s easier.

This story first appeared in the Summer 2021 Glenmary Challenge magazine.

—By John Feister