MILWAUKEE — When Luke Strand started college nine years ago, he wanted to earn a marketing degree, a job in the business world, then a house and children.
Now he's a priest and that's not all. His brother, Vincent, is on his way to being ordained a Jesuit priest and their youngest brother, Jake, was ordained in the spring.
The family calling is remarkable at a time when fewer men, especially in the U.S., are choosing the Roman Catholic clergy. More than 3,200 of the 17,800 U.S. parishes don't have resident priests, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. As of last year, the total number of priests in the U.S. had decreased 14 percent from 2000.
So why did three men from one family sacrifice what they thought they wanted in their lives to become priests? Even their family was blindsided. The brothers' parents, who live in Dousman, Wis., never encouraged it or discouraged it — they just never discussed it.
"It takes you off guard, (having) one after the other come and talk to us," said their mother, Bernadette Strand.
The boys went to Catholic grade school, attended church every Sunday and prayed before dinner but weren't "eccentric," according to their father, Jerry. Their aunt is a member of the Poor Clare Sisters in Kokomo, Ind. His mother, Ruth, said she and her husband hoped one of their grandsons would join the priesthood.
"Grandma would always say, 'Maybe one of you boys is going to be a priest' and I think we'd just laugh: 'Whatever, grandma.' I mean we're not going to study to be a priest," Luke Strand said.
They say they all discovered their calling at the end of high school or college. All three wrestled with the decision for years, mainly because of the celibacy vow.
The first to attend seminary was the oldest, Luke, now 31 and described as the peacemaker and most social.
He said he started getting involved in the campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and found a lot of young people "getting fired up for the faith." But he found the priest shortage intimidating, he said. He worried he would have to serve an entire county by himself. But it was also one of his motivations.
By his senior year he found himself living with a priest in a homeless shelter "radically serving the poor and applying to the seminary. And I remember thinking to myself: 'How did I get here? Like, what's this all about?' And ultimately it was about service in the church."
He's now working as vocations director for the Milwaukee Archdiocese, recruiting priests.
Described as the family academic, Vincent Strand, 29, is studying German in Austria as part of his 11 years of formation before he's ordained.
He said his calling came at Marquette University, a Jesuit school in Milwaukee. Much like Luke, he wanted to make a lot of money as a neurologist, get married and have kids.
"I do distinctly remember thinking: 'Oh good. (Luke's) going to be the priest. I don't have to now.'"
But a theology professor's teachings showed him "God was real in a way I hadn't (realized) before," he said. And he realized he could have an intellectual life that involved God.
He considered devoting himself to God even if he got married but he knew he'd only go halfway and he wanted to "completely empty" himself. He broke up with a longtime college girlfriend to pursue his calling.
"The celibacy and that vow of celibacy has been one of the real things I love about the life and one the very freeing things about the life," he said.
The youngest brother, 26-year-old Jacob, had the hardest time deciding. The idea frightened him.
He started thinking about the priesthood more in college, though. He originally looked into ways to serve while still being able to have a family. Then God told him to give up everything. He said he decided at the end of his sophomore year in college that he would enter the seminary.
"Initially, I was like, 'Well, it's impossible that I could also be called because Luke and Vince are taking care of that duty. I don't need to do that.' But what I found it wasn't a duty at all. It was a gift."
He was ordained this spring and he's now at St. Charles Parish in Hartland for the summer. He will then study another year in Rome to complete his theology license.
They all say they're happy.
"I think society, when it looks at the priesthood, it thinks it's a bunch of really ancient people that are angry and aren't enjoying life," Luke Strand said. "Man, go look at the reality of priests' lives. They love what they do. They are joyful. They're happy. They are free. Isn't that what people are looking for?"
Their parents say they have found peace with their sons' decisions and let go of their dreams for a herd of grandchildren, though they still have their 23-year-old daughter, Theresa Krausert, who married last summer.
"We let go of that, it's not about us," Jerry Strand said. "It really has nothing to do with our joy because we will or won't. That's part of the sacrifice."
Krausert said nothing has changed with her older brothers, who always watched out for her.
"I think they swear more than I do," she said.
And they still pick on each other.
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"We used to call him the boy deacon because he has a baby face and now we have to call him the boy priest," Luke Strand said about Jacob, sitting nearby.
"Your one hair is out of place," Jacob kidded Luke, who is balding.
Bernadette Strand said the family has heard lots of reactions like, "Is your daughter going to become a nun?" Or "I can't believe how normal you are."
"It's almost kind of ridiculous because of course we're normal and all of the boys grew up totally normal," she said.
The brothers say it's a mystery to them why they all were chosen.
"Why is it so important?" Luke Strand said. "Because we realize there's something beyond ourselves."