Ask Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem., when he knew he wanted to be a priest and he will tell you there was no moment “of great revelation or a moment of absolute clarity.” Nevertheless, the call was always there. He grew up in an extended family that included two uncles who were Jesuit priests.
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Priest-Artist-Teacher Finds Classroom “A Sacred Place”

Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.
Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

Ask Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem., when he knew he wanted to be a priest and he will tell you there was no moment “of great revelation or a moment of absolute clarity.” Nevertheless, the call was always there.

He grew up in an extended family that included two uncles who were Jesuit priests. The idea of a religious vocation was “gently promoted and encouraged as a viable opportunity for young men in general, and for me in particular.”

Still, Fr. Neilson’s love for Church is more easily pinpointed than the awareness of priest as a possible life option. Commitments to both evolved from his sensitivity to the visual arts. He loved the color and the beauty within the church environment; he found the aesthetics thrilling and enriching. Such a milieu encouraged Fr. Neilson’s authenticity as a person and drew him toward religious life.

His first awareness of doctrinal truth came through the visual arts. “I knew what ‘light from true light’ meant seeing it filtered through glass, seeing it dramatically understood through architecture that valued the way light played on surfaces and on people, and to see, to truly feel this, ‘one God from one God.’ ” Through such revelation of creedal truth he became a believer.

Fr. Neilson then recognized “priest” as custodian of such an environment. “I thought, ‘That would be a job I would like,’ to be the curator for this beauty.” The aesthetic and spiritual attraction to Church and his own predisposition toward the arts also aroused his interest in teaching. Coming from a family of educators, “it all worked in this very sort of strange mysterious way to reveal God’s truth.”

Born in Springfield, Illinois, Fr. Neilson moved to Chicago when he was seven and to Indianapolis when he was 14. He returned to Chicago to teach fourth grade as a volunteer in the Amate House program before pursuing religious life, and graduated summa cum laude in art education from St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, in 1988.

But with his Jesuit affiliations, why the Norbertines? He explored several religious orders but found the Norbertines especially welcoming and affirming of his previous role as teacher. Fr. Gene Gries, O. Praem., then St. Norbert Abbey’s vocations director, visited Fr. Neilson’s fourth grade classroom, joined him in the cafeteria, and—an educator himself—talked teaching strategies with his recruit. Fr. Neilson’s reaction: “If anybody else is like that in this organization, I want to join them.”

A visit to the abbey reinforced that first impression: “This is a wellspring of interesting and talented people.” He entered in 1985 and was ordained in 1993.

Admission to the order brought a heightened sense of responsibility and accountability. He wanted to do well—to not only to express his gratitude to the order, but also build on the foundation the order represented.

Priest-artist-teacher Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.
Priest-artist-teacher Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

There were challenges. Nonetheless, “I think the Lord has been extremely generous in cultivating authentic vocation by allowing me to go to art school.” Prior to priestly ordination he earned a master’s degree in divinity, and after ordination he completed his master’s degree in fine arts. Today, he teaches art at St. Norbert College.

“Priest as artist” might be a combination some find mystifying. Within the order, however, the mix follows from the question, “ ‘What is it that gives you life and what can you then return to the Church?’ This is a very Norbertine and very inclusive view of how to be Church and how to celebrate the presence of Christ in the world. Beauty and its understanding—intellectually and spiritually—is a way of doing that.” For Fr. Neilson, practicing the visual arts is both prayer and “catalyst for discerning God’s will.” His combined role of priest, artist, and teacher “is a tripartite vocation—one informs the other. I can’t be one without the other.” The order not only allows such individual expression, but also “encourages us to cultivate the gifts God has given us.”

Fr. Stephen Rossey, O. Praem., a Norbertine mentor who is also an artist, aided Fr. Neilson’s discernment process. A kindred, like-minded spirit, Fr. Rossey was a guide, wisdom figure, and companion on the younger priest’s journey. “[Fr. Rossey] made a huge difference in both my spiritual life and my personal aesthetic. That’s been one of the great gifts of the community, knowing someone like Steve who has been so powerfully influential to me. And I think religious life would be diminished if that possibility [mentorships] were unavailable.”

While art as the essence of his ministry is a given, it is not necessarily in doing or making art that Fr. Neilson is most fulfilled. He has a studio at the abbey but spends little time there. He is at his best in the classroom: “a sacred place where you can experience the divine and the holy. I feel I am as much a priest in the classroom as I am in the church… Christ had roles as a teacher; I feel I am following the footsteps of the person I most admire.”

Within his Norbertine membership, friendship and collegiality score high on the list of pluses. But life within community is not without its challenges. “With any relationship you have, you have to really work at it. It is very easy to let that slide, to dedicate yourself to the institution rather than your family. That is a constant struggle to me.”

So, also, is the desire and need to maintain community. “It’s a precious balancing act between community, which I know is vital, and the demands of apostolate. With the situation of the priesthood today, we are overwhelmed with wonderful opportunities and needs. There is always something to be done for the many within the Church and we can’t always be present as often or to as many as we’d like. It’s a dilemma—a pull that I grapple with every day.”

His abbey affiliation, however, is affirming. People let him know that he is missed, a reminder he needs to review his priorities. “You need to know that you count and that you are needed.”

Within the community, Fr. Neilson enjoys hearing the stories of his confreres and being inspired by their own journeys and talents. He has enjoyed the community’s generosity in supporting the development of his own interests. “The best word to describe the order for me is ‘generosity.’ The order has commissioned me to take seriously my studies for the sake of the order and the Church prizing the order’s rich legacy of teaching.”

Fr. Neilson consciously strives to share his love of art and the Church with others. “I am anxious to perpetuate the artistic legacy of the believing community just as a custodian or a curator might.” It is why he teaches: “so I can preserve and extend the beauty and truth of the faith. I don’t want that legacy to be lost.”