Central Florida priest praised for service to local zoo while balancing parish duties in retirement

By David Paulsen
Posted May 9, 2023
Norman Desrosiers

The Rev. Normal Desrosiers is shown at left leading an online liturgy as interim priest-in-charge at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Sebastian, Florida. He also volunteers twice a week with the maintenance crew at the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, where he took the selfie on the right with a zoo rhino.

[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. Norman Desrosiers retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2010 as a lieutenant colonel with 25 years of service, including four years during the Vietnam War. As a longtime Episcopal priest, he also retired from full-time parish ministry in 2016.

Now, at 76, Desrosiers is nearly as active in retirement as he was before.

For starters, Desrosiers has served the past three years as interim priest-in-charge at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Sebastian, Florida, while the Central Florida congregation seeks a priest to fill the role permanently. He also serves as a chaplain to the fire department where he lives, about a half hour up the Atlantic Coast in Melbourne. And last month, he was named one of two volunteers of the year at Melbourne’s Brevard Zoo, where he donates his time every Tuesday and Thursday assisting the zoo’s maintenance crew.

When Episcopal News Service reached him by phone at St. Elizabeth’s during his Wednesday office hours, he said he was looking forward to the congregation’s upcoming Habitat for Humanity build. He plans to keep hauling two-by-fours with other Habitat volunteers “as long as my body holds up.”

That devotion to constant activity shouldn’t surprise anyone who has followed Desrosiers’ long career, from his Vietnam War-era specialized work with the Air Force – he was stationed in Taiwan, in a “classified” capacity – to his ordination to the priesthood in 1981, which later led to his service all over the world as a military chaplain. Among his assignments was suburban Washington, D.C., where he was called on to provide pastoral care to Department of Defense employees after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

What initially drew him to volunteer at the Brevard Zoo, however, was a more mundane, personal bit of his biography: he enjoys aquariums.

With that passion in mind, he first snagged a role six years ago in the zoo’s aquarium, “teaching young children about local crustaceans and sea life.” He said he would have preferred an assignment helping with the zoo’s Sea Turtle Healing Center, but those roles were already filled. “Everybody wanted to do sea turtle rescue at that point,” he said.

After about a year volunteering in the aquarium, he said he started getting “a little itchy” for a new role, one that would put to use the handyman skills he picked up from his father. He now is the sole unpaid member of the zoo’s maintenance crew.

“It was either that or start playing with giraffes,” he said.

That may sound like a joke, but there’s nothing funny about Desrosiers’ love of animals.

“I’ve ridden elephants in Thailand, and I’ve had horses and chickens,” he said. “I had a small farm when I was in seminary” – he attended what then was the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts – “so I was very familiar with animals, and I like and enjoy being around animals.”

His wife is an animal lover too, particularly elephants. His favorites are the tigers, though that species isn’t kept at the Brevard Zoo. Instead, Desrosiers helps the maintenance crew build and repair habitats for other big cats, such as jaguars, cheetahs and lions. Last week, their tasks involved tearing down a red-ruffed lemur’s old habitat.

“We’re going to rebuild it and make it a lot better and a lot safer for the animal,” he said. The crew’s previous assignment was to pour a cement pad for a black bear habitat.

“You don’t know, day to day, what the job’s going to be,” Desrosiers said.

He called it “a real honor” to be chosen out of 500 volunteers as one of the two recipients of this year’s volunteer of the year awards. Kathleen Nichols, the zoo’s director of volunteer programs, praised Desrosiers and fellow volunteer Michael Musick for their service.

“We feel like we have one of the best volunteer programs in Brevard County, maybe the state,” Nichols told Click Orlando. “Between the two of them, they’re a nice representation of what our volunteers do to make a difference.”

As a priest, Desrosiers concluded his military chaplaincy service at Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard County and went on to serve nearby parishes, first at Holy Apostles Episcopal Church in Satellite Beach and then at St. Sebastian’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Melbourne Beach before retiring at age 70.

He had begun serving as a supply priest at St. Elizabeth’s when the congregation asked him to step up as the church’s interim leader. He sees some similarities in his service to the zoo and the church.

“I find that as a priest in the church, in a lot of ways, because of our counseling, we’re trying to help people through those difficult times,” he said. A zoo provides similar support for animals, he said, some of which have been rescued from crisis situations. “They need healing, they need love.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.