Brother Nicholas lives to the hilt

Categories: Around the Diocese

Holy Cross missioner from Avon recalls Mother Teresa and life in Bangladesh

June 7, 2013, edition
By Nikki Rajala

Holy Cross Brother Nicholas Thielman, a three-sport star from St. Cloud’s Technical High School, class of 1955, and Avon native, returned to celebrate his 50th anniversary of taking vows.

He spoke about Bangladesh — its economy, weather, food, being the Christian minority in a Muslim country — and meeting Mother Teresa three times. But mostly he championed literacy and technical training for Bangladeshi youth, his task for the last 46 years.

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 “At Tech, I played football, basketball, baseball — and was football captain my senior year,” Brother Nicholas said. “Sports gave me discipline and taught me how to work with people. But it hindered me academically.

“The morning after I graduated, my older brother, Father Ken Thielman, was ordained at St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud.”

The brothers didn’t talk much about vocation then. But Brother Nicholas sensed his own.

Father Thielman remembered, “Dad always said ‘Out of seven boys, we should be able to get one priest.’ I thought he was looking at me when he said that, but maybe he was looking at Nick.”

After a year at St. John’s University and four in the Air Force, Brother Nicholas acted on his vocation: he visited the Crosiers Fathers and Brothers in Onamia with Father Thielman, then went to California. A Brothers of Holy Cross advertisement in the Los Angeles Tidings, the diocesan paper, caught his eye — they needed teachers and social workers.

“Immediately it clicked. That was what I wanted to do,” he said. “I could join in July. Then I went back to Minnesota, took classes at St. Cloud State and played amateur baseball for the Avon Lakers and coached Little League. But my teams were winning — I couldn’t leave. After they became champs, I was ready.”

He entered Sept. 13, 1961, in Austin, Texas, and took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.”

When offered a position in East Pakistan (now called Bangladesh), Brother Nicholas mistakenly searched for it on a map of Africa.

From being stationed at Bremerhaven, Germany, from 1957 to 1960, I knew what it meant to leave your family. I took the fourth vow — to go anywhere in the world — without any hesitation.”

As a missioner

Brother Nicholas taught English, geography and religion at St. Joseph High School in Mohammadpur. Later he became headmaster.

“Our missionary schools have high standards and are fully respected by Hindus and Muslims,” he said. “Everybody wants into them — we have 20,000 applicants for 2,000 seats. I encouraged top students to study in the United States.”

Father Thielman said, “About 1975 Brother Nick asked me to find a place for one of his students, Jude Gomez, to stay in my St. Joseph Parish in Waite Park. Mary Lou Kalla and her family offered their home. They were good with him and he took schooling at St. Cloud State seriously. Gomez now lives in Maryland but comes back, even for some of my celebrations.”

In Brother Nicholas’ “second track,” helping underprivileged Bangladeshis, he founded two literacy schools for basic education and helped youth attend technical schools for employable skills, like tailoring.

“My job was to organize and finance the literacy schools and training centers. One literacy school still operates; the other is run by alumni of St. Placid High School, where I was assistant headmaster. I also built five dormitories with funds from benefactors.”

Medicine for Mother Teresa

In the midst of that work, he met Mother Teresa.

“She came to Bangladesh in 1971 to set up a Home of Compassion,” he said. “I supervised a group of Junior Rotarians who gathered medicines — and we took them to her. The second time I visited her convent in Calcutta with a provincial from Canada. I took my niece-in-law to meet her some years later. Mother Teresa was always very gracious.

“I took the privilege of attending her funeral, and her beatification. I will be there when she is canonized.”

Though proud of his honors, he hardly mentioned induction into Tech High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 1990 and receiving the Distinguished Alumni Award in 1997.

Brother Nicholas celebrated his jubilee in Minnesota May 26; he’ll also be honored in Maryland and also in Texas with his Holy Cross jubilarian brothers.

“I retired in 2010. But that wasn’t for me,” he said. “I’ll go back to the port city of Chittagong and think of some creative retirement plan — like opening a shelter for poor street kids, or getting involved as a high school counselor.” 

To help provide education, dormitories or a shelter for Bangladeshis

Write on the check notation line:
Bangladesh, c/o Brother Nicholas Thielman

Mail donations to:
Brothers of Holy Cross
1101 St. Edward’s Drive
Austin, TX 78704-6512