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Duluth priest splits time between pews and ewes

Tom Foster, a Duluth priest and chaplain both for the 148th Fighter Wing and SMDC, also tends a flock of sheep. Foster is showing some of his sheep at the Head of the Lakes Fair in Superior, including Mona, a Lincoln Longwool breed. (Bob King /

Father Tom Foster of Duluth is a priest with a flock. Quite literally.

The full-time chaplain at St. Mary's Duluth Clinic keeps 100 ewes and lambs on his 47-acre farm in Cloverland, near Maple.

Foster said he loves the contrast of working between his two flocks -- parishioners and sheep -- though he also spots a number of common traits.

"In scripture, the flock is a very common image, and there are a number of similarities between our behavior and the behavior of sheep," said Foster, who also serves as chaplain to the 148th Fighter Wing of the Minnesota Air National Guard. "They can overeat, just like we can; they need to be trained; and you need to develop their trust."

This week, the priest has been spending much of his free time at the Head of the Lakes Fair in Superior, where he and his sheep have been a fixture for many of the past 10 shows.

"He is always running in and out of the fairgrounds," said Crystal McGrath, the livestock pavilion superintendent. "There are days when he has to go and do a funeral, then come back and get his animals checked in."

Foster said his interest in sheep-

*earing started as a boy growing up on a farm on the Leech Lake Reservation in north-central Minnesota, when he helped two of his younger brothers establish flocks for 4H competitions.

When his brothers finished 4H, they sold their flocks but gave Foster five sheep in recognition of his contribution.

These days, Foster -- in his mid-50s -- helps his nieces and nephews establish new flocks of their own in a new generation of 4Hers.

When a fellow priest suggested he might be losing his vocation as a member of the clergy in preference for sheep farming, Foster claimed that, in fact, the opposite was true.

"I know that it's quite often as I'm working with the animals that I'm able to work through some of the questions in my own life. ... In some ways, I'm deepening my vocation," said Foster, who often takes a prayer book to the barn while he watches over the ewes at lambing time.

"When I'm out working with the animals ... that's where I do a lot of my homily preparation -- I will work it through in my head, and then I have notebooks or scrap paper around to write down ideas."

The priest with a flock is certainly missed when he has to skip a year at the Head of the Lakes Fair; several years ago at fair time, Foster was on deployment to Southwest Asia with the Air National Guard.

"The barn was really quiet when he wasn't here," said Marie Zuchowski of Foxboro, Wis., who has attended the fair for about 15 years with her four children, who participated in 4H. "He has a lot of sheep and he can usually fill three pens."

With 100 sheep and countless parishioners, patients and military personnel depending on him for their pastoral care, Foster finds himself pulled in many directions.

Content with his path in life, Foster points to the prophet Amos, who was called by God while he was a shepherd.

Additionally, he clearly enjoys turning upside-down some people's expectations of a modern-day priest.

"It definitely isn't the normal model or image of a priest," Foster said with a smile. "Even a lady that I was anointing -- she was dying -- and after anointing her, she said: 'Are you sure you're a priest?' and I said, 'Yes, why?' And she said, 'Because your hands are so rough.' "