A Chaplain’s Last Wish

Father Frank Brett, whose bequest will help Diocese of Knoxville students, will be buried with fallen chaplain brother

By Dan McWilliams

The legacy of Father Frank Brett lives on in East Tennessee after two of his nephews presented a check for $265,000 from the late priest’s estate to go toward tuition support in the Diocese of Knoxville.

Edward Rouse, Father Brett’s oldest nephew, and younger brother Tim Rouse presented the check Nov. 14 to diocesan chancellor Deacon Sean Smith, Catholic Schools superintendent Sister Mary Marta Abbott, RSM, and diocesan chief financial officer Shannon Hepp.

“I’ve been a CPA for 40 years, and that’s the largest check I’ve ever written,” Edward Rouse said.

Father Frank Brett

Father Brett died in 2017 at the age of 86. He was a U.S. Army chaplain for some 30 years, beginning in 1968, following in the footsteps of his younger brother, Navy chaplain Father Robert Brett, who died in Vietnam. Father Frank Brett retired as a lieutenant colonel after serving in Okinawa, Texas, Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., Hawaii, Florida, the Netherlands, and Germany.

“Chaplain [Frank] Brett was my godfather,” Edward Rouse said. “When the chaplain died, he had in his will directions to preserve some of his estate for scholarships for children who are underprivileged to go to Catholic school. So I’m here to make good on part of that today.”

Father Frank Brett possessed a love of Catholic schools.

“Absolutely. He started his career as a teacher of theology at Catholic High School,” Mr. Rouse said. “One of his students went to Vietnam and was in the same unit with Uncle Bob at the battle of Khe Sanh. [Father Frank Brett] would say to me, and I agreed 100 percent with him, you know, if it wasn’t for Catholic education, we wouldn’t have too many Catholics, because it instills in their mind when they’re young.”

Mr. Rouse referred to a Knights of Columbus dinner honoring religious sisters by the Knights of Columbus. He said all the Knights expressed gratitude at having been taught by the sisters.

“Frank was of that mentality as well, and I think that’s the genesis of his desire for that gift [to the Diocese of Knoxville],” he said.

Father Frank Brett will be buried with full military honors April 24 in Arlington National Cemetery, in the same grave with his brother, Father Robert Brett.

“Uncle Bob was killed in Vietnam, and when he came back from Vietnam he was buried at the Catholic seminary where he attended, the Marist Seminary in Penndel, Pa., and in 1998 we moved him to Arlington National Cemetery on Chaplain’s Hill. The Naval Chaplain School was named after him,” Mr. Rouse said.

Mr. Rouse was key in having not only his uncle’s remains moved to Arlington but also those of his uncle’s clerk, Lance Cpl. Alexander Chin, who was killed with Father Robert Brett on Feb. 22, 1968, by a Viet Cong mortar shell at an outpost near the Khe Sanh Base.

Tim Rouse said his Uncle Frank’s gift to the Diocese of Knoxville is “special, and it’s totally in line with what my uncle was all about. He was a kind and sweet man, and I know that he would be very happy to know how it’s being put to use.”

Father Frank Brett was ordained in 1959 at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville and served at Sacred Heart and Immaculate Conception parishes in Knoxville and at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa, as well as serving as a chaplain at St. Mary’s Hospital, before his military service began. He served at St. Joseph Parish in Norris after his retirement from the Army.

“I spent time with him while he was a chaplain at Army headquarters in Europe,” Tim Rouse said. “One of my fondest memories is spending some time with him over in Europe when he was serving.”

Father Frank Brett’s vocation was shaped by the service of his younger brother.

“In 1967, Uncle Bob volunteered to be a chaplain in the U.S. Navy, and he graduated from the Naval Chaplain School, which is now named after him, and he came back to Philadelphia in September 1967, when I was in grade school,” Edward Rouse said. “Then he went to Vietnam, where he was killed the following February. After that, Frank decided he was going to be a chaplain also, after Bob had been killed. …

“Away he went to Vietnam in 1969 and ’70. He served in combat in Vietnam, as well as Bob. Now they’re both going to be buried together at Arlington Cemetery in the same grave. I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying it’s historic. I don’t believe that there’s anybody else in that circumstance. What you have there is two brothers, two Catholic priests, two chaplains, two combat veterans, two decorated combat veterans: Frank was awarded the Bronze Star, which is the fourth-highest award, and Bob was awarded the Legion of Merit, which is the third-highest award.”

Edward Rouse recalled memories of both of his uncles from his youth.

“I very much remember my uncle, when he left for Vietnam, my Uncle Bob,” he said. “I used to set up my plastic soldiers in these elaborate little scenes, and I still remember this to this day, him coming down and sitting with me and going, ‘Wow, you did a great job.’ Even at that young age, I felt totally embarrassed, because I was looking at this and I was thinking to myself, ‘I know where you’re going.’ And it was only six or seven months later that he had passed away.

“My Uncle Frank, on the other hand, I would see him — he pretty much married everyone in our family, [Tim Rouse: “or baptized everybody.”] It was always a big family event. He would come to the house, typically for Thanksgiving.”

Edward Rouse also spent time with Father Frank Brett in Europe.

“I got to spend a week with him. I had never been to Europe. I went and hung out with him for a week, and he was just such a calm, easygoing, friendly, kind individual. I remember we went to the Cathedral of Cologne, and those towers are pretty impressive. So we set out to go to the top of the tower, and I was walking up that tower. I was probably in my mid-20s, and he was obviously much older. I’m walking up that thing, and I’m saying, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it.’ I kept looking behind me, and he was right behind me. He made it all the way up, and I was huffing and puffing. He was fine.”

Tim Rouse added: “He was a soldier.”

Edward Rouse remembers both his Uncle Bob returning from Naval Chaplains School in September 1967 and a going-away party held for the priest at their Uncle Jim’s house. Uncle Jim had a little too much to drink and began “machine gunning” questions at Father Robert Brett.

“Jim says, ‘You don’t have to go to Vietnam. What are you going to Vietnam for? Two hundred men a week are being killed there.’ And all of a sudden Bob looked at him and said, ‘But that’s where I’m needed.’

“When I was 13 years of age I didn’t understand the danger in that statement. Now, after being an officer in the Marine Corps myself, I understand the danger in that statement. So when I think back about that event, which I do often, it brings back a memory to me that’s important. Bob knew exactly what he was doing.”

Sister Mary Marta said Father Frank Brett’s gift to the diocese “is wonderful.”

“It’s unexpected, and it’s greatly needed. In the diocese last year, we gave over $4 million in tuition support,” she said. “Any amount we can get to go toward tuition support so that other children get a chance to go to Catholic school is wonderful. I’m very grateful [to Father Brett]. It was a wonderful surprise, and it’s a great gift.”

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