Building relationships key for former Catholic Charities director

When Steven Howard first moved to St. Cloud in 2008 to serve as the executive director of WACOSA, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities find employment opportunities, Steve Bresnahan was the first person to make him feel welcome in the community.

“He is the most cordial, accepting, inviting man,” Howard said. “He made me feel so welcome in the area. I was lonely and nervous about my new job and he made me feel right at home.”

Bresnahan has been a vital leader in the community for 22 years, serving the 16 counties of the Diocese of St. Cloud as the executive director of Catholic Charities. He announced his retirement in May and is staying on with Catholic Charities until the end of the year to assist the new executive director, Deacon Stephen Pareja, in the transition.

“Steve’s been an amazing resource in Central Minnesota and one of the kindest, brightest men I’ve ever met,” Howard said. “He’s a huge supporter of people with disabilities and has been a collaborator with us at WACOSA. He has influenced me as a leader, which in turn, has an impact on the community. All he has ever really wanted to do is work in collaboration with other nonprofits so each of us can fulfill our mission to the best of our abilities.”

Leading with integrity

Laura Wocken has worked side by side as Bresnahan’s assistant for 18 years and also appreciates his collaborative style.

“When things need to be figured out, he brings together the people involved who know the most about the matter, so the best decision can be made,” she said.

Steve Bresnahan, in his office at Catholic Charities' north campus in St. Cloud, is retiring after 22 years as the organization's executive director. (Photo by Dianne Towalski/The Visitor)
Steve Bresnahan, in his office at Catholic Charities’ north campus in St. Cloud, is retiring after 22 years as the organization’s executive director. (Photo by Dianne Towalski/The Visitor)

One of Bresnahan’s significant accomplishments was acquiring the Catholic Charities building on Roosevelt Road in St. Cloud, which now houses Catholic Charities Emergency Services, commonly called the food shelf, Wocken said.

“At the time the building came on the market, it was a grocery store and it seemed very large, almost too large, to many of us,” she said.

“Moving our food shelf there, however, let us imagine a new way to help people get the food they need,” she said. “Instead of being handed a couple bags of groceries, they are able to make their own food selections from grocery shelves. The coolers and freezers allow us to receive many more donations of food. And the size of the space has allowed us to serve a much larger number of households for many years.”

Penny Casavant, director of organizational advancement at Catholic Charities, also has had the opportunity to work closely with Bresnahan.

“Steve hired me just over eight years ago and it’s been the most enjoyable and rewarding time of my career,” Casavant said. “That’s because I never really felt like I was working for Steve, but instead I was working with him.”

Casavant’s role at Catholic Charities has included accompanying Bresnahan on visits to donors.

“Over and over again, I have heard those donors say they trust Catholic Charities. During the last 22 years, Steve has built that trust not only for himself but for this whole organization by leading with integrity,” she said.

Yvonne Kremers, a volunteer and benefactor of Catholic Charities, first met Bresnahan during his interview process while she was serving on the board of directors.

“He impressed us, and he is still impressing us,” Kremers said about Bresnahan, who came to Catholic Charities after a 15-year career in health care administration. “I’m astounded at the heights he took the organization from the time he started until now through programming, fundraising and through community involvement.”

When he came to Catholic Charities, the organization was widely known as “the food shelf,” Kremers said. Since that time, Bresnahan — the agency’s first lay executive director — has helped people see the bigger scope of Catholic Charities, which now has more than 40 programs, including programs for families, children, seniors, housing, mental health and social concerns.

“He was very influential in making the community realize who Catholic Charities was, that it was a service for all,” she said. “He is a listener. He listened to the needs of the community and proceeded to provide for them.”

Facing challenges

Bresnahan faced a number of challenges over the years, including two recessions and a housing crisis.

“We’ve managed to continue to serve people in need through some pretty turbulent times,” he said. “We saw big increases in the food shelf and we were still able to provide food for people who needed it.”

Since moving the food shelf to the new building, Catholic Charities went from serving 500 families a month to 2,200 families. They’ve also expanded their visual presence in the community.

“We’ve done a much better job of opening up our doors and letting the public see what we do,” he said. “Confidentiality is a really important thing. We are working with people who are vulnerable and we need to respect their privacy. And at the same time, if we want people to understand and support us, we need to let people know who we help and how we function.”

The enjoyable part, he said, is being able to sit down with people who believe in the mission of Catholic Charities.

“It’s been fun to watch those relationships develop and to continue to nurture them. That’s one of the things I will miss. I hope I will still continue to do that in some way on behalf of the organization,” he said.

He is looking forward to a slower pace and possibly teaching at the college level. But he said he will never forget the thousands of stories of people he has met.

“The stories are always about people who came to us very, very vulnerable and very, very hurting and we were able at that point in time to give them something they needed,” he said. “Often we hear back from them again of how it impacted them. The neat thing is a lot of these stories come to me from staff and volunteers who were in that situation who were also impacted and touched. The giver — staff or volunteer — gained something out of it as well as the receiver.”

One thing he hopes people have learned from him is to never give up.

“We may not think we have the resources but that’s because we aren’t listening to what people are needing most or we’re not really enlarging the circle on the giving side to include people that will gladly support the work we do but haven’t been asked,” he said. “The legacy I hope I can leave is that we can help people, even when we’re not sure how.”

New leader

At a press conference Oct. 28, Bishop Donald Kettler announced the appointment of Deacon Pareja as the new executive director.

Deacon Pareja, who serves as deacon at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Sartell where he lives with his wife, Donna, began at Catholic Charities Nov. 28. He comes to the new job after extensive experience in the health care industry, serving most recently as director of clinical services at CentraCare Health in Monticello, Minnesota. The couple has two college age children.

Bresnahan’s advice for Deacon Pareja?

“You’ve been given a gift. Cherish it. When the time comes, be ready to hand it on to the next person that follows you,” he said. “It’s not your gift — it belongs to everybody. Always think of it that way, something given to you, not something you created. And it’s something, when the time comes, you will get to regift.”

Author: Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is the editor of The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

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