Jim Bradshaw: Brennan remembered as a 'beloved priest'
The stories reporting the death of the Rev. Joseph Brennan characterized him as a “beloved priest” of the Diocese of Lafayette. It is an apt characterization. He was a counselor to saints and a friend to sinners.
“He had a real knack for finding the lost sheep,” the Rev. Curtis Mallet said. “He had an ability to find just the way to approach them [with] words of comfort and wisdom.”
Brennan died Oct. 26. He was 86, born in 1931 into the middle-class Irish family of Joseph and Kathryn Brennan in Philadelphia. He was proud of his Irish heritage; even though a succession of his pet dachshunds were of German origin, they were all named “Danny Boy.”
He’d studied journalism at Villanova and been a teacher and coach before entering St. John Seminary in Little Rock, Ark. He decided to work in the Diocese of Lafayette after meeting 18 south Louisiana seminarians who were also studying there.
“I was captured by the warmth … of the people of Acadiana,” he wrote in a little autobiography in 1999 (‘Tis Me: A Remembrance of a Priesthood).
He had been ordained for only three months in August 1959 when, as an assistant in Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Lafayette, he was called to minister to 12-year-old Charlene Richard.
“I have a clear memory of going to the hospital room where she was dying and thinking, ‘What can I say to this little girl.?’” As it turned out, she spoke eloquently to him — and to many others — as she bravely suffered through her final days. On the night that she died, Father Brennan recalled, “I thought … that no one would believe the story of her journey of faith. … I was wrong about that. Ten thousand people now visit her grave each year.”
In 1966, he was sent to Sacred Heart Parish in Ville Platte.
His duties there included coaching at Sacred Heart High School, where he helped guide the football team to a state championship. He was an avid sports fan all of his life, suffering through years of dismal seasons before his beloved Chicago Cubs and New Orleans Saints became winners.
After assignments in other parts of the diocese, he returned to Ville Platte in the early 1970s as founding pastor of Our Lady Queen of All Saints. There was as yet no church and no rectory. He lived in a rented house and said Mass in a skating rink.
It turned into another life-changing event for him when, in 1976, he was named diocesan chairman of a campaign to raise money to help feed the world’s poor. He met another saint when he went to the national Catholic Daughters of America convention that summer to talk about the drive.
“As I was leaving the hotel, quite by chance, I met Mother Teresa, who was scheduled to talk at the same convention,” he wrote in a memoir (Mother Teresa: A Friend Remembered. 2002). “I told her why I was there, and she took my hand and said, ‘Father Brennan, you must come to Calcutta.’
“Little did I know what her invitation would mean in my life. I was very confused as I returned to … Ville Platte. I was a simple parish priest. What in the world could I do for Mother Teresa?”
He did go to Calcutta, and never forgot the experience. The “simple parish priest” became Mother Teresa’s trusted counselor and friend. She visited Lafayette in 1985 to establish a convent for her Missionaries of Charity and twin rainbows appeared in the sky after 10,000 people turned out to greet her.
There were difficult times. Father Brennan took stands on the Vietnam war and school desegregation that were not popular. But the most trying period of his priesthood came when he was consulted in the mid-1980s, by Lafayette policemen in a case of satanic abuse. He studied with experts on Satanism, became an expert who was called upon in cases across the U.S., and counseled more than 200 traumatized children.
But the good times outweighed the bad. He said in his autobiography, “God has been good to Joe Brennan. He has made me a happy man.”
Father Brennan retired from active ministry in 1996, but continued to preach retreats, to write little books on spirituality and prayer, and to counsel the faithful and those searching for faith.
Even as his health failed, nurses and doctors lined up at his hospital room to receive his blessing. Former Lafayette Sheriff Donald Breaux was one of Father Brennan’s parishioners and a longtime friend.
He agreed with many others that “everybody who met him loved him.” It should be added, “and he loved them back.”
Donations in Father Brennan’s memory can be made to “mother’s little nuns,” as he called them: Missionaries of Charity, 904 Jack Street, Lafayette LA 70501,
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.