*The contents of this article are derived from a number of sources, including personal interviews with Rev. Breen and his wife Pauline during our many visits, the family, and especially his grandson, attorney Mr. Ben Veldkamp, to whom I am indebted.
Although the year 1919 began with the nation mourning the death of Teddy Roosevelt, optimism seemed to abound. The flu pandemic that snuffed out some 30 million lives, was beginning to fade. World War I, the four-year quagmire that swallowed up another 18 million souls, had just ended (and with it the furor in West Michigan over a young Reformed pastor’s refusal to display the flag during services in his church in Holland). Then, in the hope of lasting peace, the League of Nations was formed, and in the hope of a new morality, the eighteenth amendment was adopted.
On September 2, in a small farmhouse just east of the rural town of Coopersville, Michigan, a couple of Dutch immigrants rejoiced in the gift of another covenant child. The father, John, was born in 1877 as Jan Govert Breen in Stellendam, Zuid Holland. His wife, Grace, was born a year later as Gerarda Timmer in Kommerzij, Groningen. Both emigrated with parents and siblings to West Michigan where they would meet, marry, and settle down to farm. Their new child, the eleventh of twelve the Lord would give them, they named Peter James Breen.
Peter spent most of his life into adulthood on the family farm. He received his primary education in various local one-room schools and attended Coopersville High. But a few weeks before graduation, his father died of a heart attack, leaving Grace and the three youngest boys to earn the daily bread. Then, with the outbreak of World War II, Peter, who was exempted from service due to a hernia and flat feet, ran the family farm himself.
John and Grace were devoutly committed to the Reformed faith, and according to their baptismal vows, taught their children to fear the Lord in all of life and worship. They attended Coopersville Reformed Church, a congregation of mainly Dutch immigrants formed in 1854. When Peter was nine the building burned, but was rebuilt the next year. He made confession of faith there at age 19, and became increasingly involved in the church life, taught Sunday School, and led the youth group. But as yet, he had no aspirations for the ministry. His mother regularly prayed at the table that one of her sons would be a minister. And their minister, Rev. Gerrit Rozeboom, told Peter he had the necessary gifts and should consider college, then seminary. But Peter was certain the course of his life was set, and he would remain a farmer.
That changed on September 15, 1945. The war had officially ended two weeks previous, on the day before his 26th birthday. Earlier in the week, Rev. Rozeboom asked Peter to visit Hope College with him and talk to the faculty. Peter decided not to go, but each time he tried to call the minister to tell him, the line was busy. So Peter returned to cutting hay with his team of Belgians. For some reason, the horses refused to budge, and rather than continue wrestling with the massive beasts, Peter decided to go with Rev. Rozeboom and settle the issue of the ministry. When he arrived, the minister was waiting, certain Peter would go, even though he had never committed to the trip. The next week, Peter enrolled in the pre-seminary program at Hope College, but also thinking he would flunk out the first semester.
In less than a year, Peter would be preaching regularly. Due to the war, the Reformed Church in America (RCA) had a shortage of ministers and seminary students. Thus Western Theological Seminary appealed to Hope College for capable pre-seminary students who could serve vacant churches during the summer. Peter was one of those chosen. So, after receiving a crash course in preaching and a pile of sermon outlines from the faculty, he was sent to Gibson Union Chapel near Saugatuck. He did well, and would serve three more summer preaching assignments before even entering the seminary the Fall of 1949.
While at Hope College, Peter met his wife Pauline Stegenga at a class they attended called “Our Protestant Heritage.” Although Pauline did not know it yet, Peter had taken an interest in her because “she asked good questions.” When he learned she clerked at a local dry goods store, he began frequenting the establishment “to buy soap.” When the manager noticed Peter often lingered and, by then, had bought enough soap to last for years, he suggested that next time Pauline should be the one to help the young man with his purchase. The clean, aspiring preacher and lovely clerk were married August 12, 1948. During the seminary years they would have two sons, David and Stephen, who also would eventually become ministers in the RCA. Peter himself graduated and became a minister of the Word in that denomination in May 1952.
Rev. Breen’s first charge was Corinth Reformed Church, located south of Grand Rapids, near Division and 100th St. He served there from 1952 to 1957, and during this time, he and Pauline had their third child, a daughter Mary. From 1958 to 1967, he pastored First Reformed in Fremont, Michigan, where daughters Ruth and Beth were born. His next charge was Calvary Reformed in Grand Rapids from 1967 to 1978. His final pastorate in the RCA was Fourth Reformed of Grand Rapids from 1979 to 1983, when, because of problems with his voice, he retired from the active ministry in the RCA. It turned out, however, to be only a short break.
Rev. Breen’s first exposure to the PRC had happened back in seminary when the students were assigned to observe some good preacher they had not heard before. Peter wanted to hear Rev. Herman Hoeksema, whom he knew was scheduled to preach nearby. But there was a problem: Pauline was expecting to give birth at any time. Peter foolishly, he would admit, went anyway. And then compounded his error when, as Pauline recalled with the understanding only a preacher’s wife could have, he returned so excited to talk about his encounter with Hoeksema that he forgot to ask about her condition or inquire as to whether she might be in labor.
Throughout his ministry, Rev. Breen became increasingly familiar with the PRC. He read Hoeksema and other writings of PRC men. During his pastorate at Calvary Reformed, the neighbors were Protestant Reformed, and largely through their influence the Breens enrolled their two youngest daughters at Covenant Christian High. Then, in the early 80s, as Rev. Breen neared retirement, he joined a ministers’ Bible study, which included Rev. Gerald VandenBerg, the former pastor of Oak Lawn PRC. He had left the denomination in 1970 and became minister of the Orthodox Reformed Church (ORC), a small unaffiliated congregation largely of people who had separated from the PRC around the same time. In February 1985, Rev. VandenBerg was killed while working on his car, when the jack supporting it collapsed. Although by then retired, Rev. Breen frequently provided pulpit supply for the ORC, and in September they called him to be interim minister for one year. He ended up serving them for six years until 1991, when he retired a second time and the ORC subsequently disbanded.
Without a church home, and unable to return to the RCA in good conscience, Rev. Breen and Pauline decided to join the PRC. They, and a number of former members of the ORC, joined Southeast PRC. The minister, Rev. Dale Kuiper, encouraged Rev. Breen to apply for ministerial credentials in the PRC. And in January 1993, after undergoing a colloquium doctum examination by Classis East, he was admitted as minister emeritus. He immediately set about preaching and teaching catechism in various PR congregations. Due to his previous work on an RCA extension committee, he also became involved in the formation and early history of Grace PRC. Rev. Breen would remain active as a retired minister in the PRC until 2008, when doctors found an inoperable aneurysm near his heart. On August 3, a month short of his 89th birthday, he preached his final sermon in Byron Center PRC on II Samuel 9, the story of Mephibosheth.
Rev. Breen often expressed how thoroughly he enjoyed his years in the PRC. He felt at home there. He loved the churches—their unity, life, faith, worship, order, preaching, officers, and members, especially the young people—and was thankful the Lord allowed him to work in them as a retired minister of advanced age. Even after he could no longer preach, he often called on the sick, conversed at length with members, and wrote letters of encouragement to the distressed. And he found peace there from the trials he experienced earlier in his ministry. He had suffered for his commitment to the confessional Reformed faith, once even being summarily dismissed from a church wanting to be more ‘progressive.’ He had suffered for his love, support, and use of Christian schools, which at times was met with scorn and opposition. Tuition was often considered a pastoral extravagance that he should forego, but ended up paying with help from the bank and Pauline’s income as a Christian school-teacher.
Rev. Breen was a kind, gentle, peaceful, humble, and faithful, Reformed child of God and pastor. On Sunday, October 25, 2015, his life complete at the age of 96, the Lord took him home, leaving behind Pauline, his wife of 67 years, 4 children (his son David had died in 2013 of cancer), 23 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren. He collapsed early in the morning while preparing for a day of worship that, although he could no longer attend church, always began by dressing in his Sunday best in order to listen with Pauline to the services at Southeast and The Reformed Witness Hour. Frequently, he would call me after the service to leave a message of appreciation for the word. But that Sunday, the Lord called him to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Thankfully, the U.S. military had no use for him, and by the sovereign providence and saving grace of God, he was made an effective, tireless soldier of Jesus Christ.