Father Joseph Patrick Brennan, the longtime rector of St. Bernard’s Seminary who also was a giant in Rochester’s interfaith movement, died Sept. 22, 2008, at the Sisters of Mercy Motherhouse in Brighton after a lengthy bout with cancer. He was 79 years old.
“He was just an amazing person to work with and try to emulate. We can only go on and try to accomplish what Joe had in mind for all of us to do,” said Isobel Goldman, community-relations director for the Greater Rochester Jewish Community Federation.
Bishop Matthew H. Clark described Father Brennan as “a gentle, bright, gracious man,” adding that the priest is mourned by Catholics “and at least as much by folks of other faith traditions.”
A Rochester native, Father Brennan grew up in Rochester’s Sacred Heart Pro-Cathedral Parish and attended St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries. He was ordained in Rome Dec. 8, 1954, by Bishop Martin J. O’Connor. He received his licentiate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1955 and his licentiate in sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome in 1957.
Later that year, Father Brennan became assistant pastor at St. Jerome Church in East Rochester. In 1958 he became professor of sacred Scripture at St. Bernard’s Seminary, then was named the seminary’s rector in 1966. He remained in that position for 14 years until the seminary’s closing in 1980.
That same year he was named dean of St. Edmund’s College, a graduate college of the University of Cambridge, England. In 1983 he began his only pastorate, at Scottsville’s St. Mary of the Assumption Church. In 1986 he was named director of religious affairs at the University of Rochester, and he retired in 1996.
Joseph Kelly, a retired religion professor from Nazareth College, observed that Father Brennan was a pioneer in interfaith relations as far back as the early 1960s.
“He was a person who studied biblical text and was aware of the whole interchange between Christians and Jews and the importance of it,” said Kelly, who first got to know Father Brennan while attending St. Bernard’s in 1963. “Of course, I spent my life teaching Hebrew scripture also. He was my model and my mentor.”
Father Brennan noted in a 2004 Catholic Courier story that his interest in this subject matter began while studying in Rome, when he spent time in Israel as well.
“I studied modern Hebrew, and that kind of got me interested in the Jewish community today, not just the Jewish community of 2,000 years ago,” he said.
His efforts led in 1996 to the renowned Rochester Agreement between the Rochester Board of Rabbis and the Diocese of Rochester. He also was instrumental in forming the Commission on Jewish Relations as well as the Rochester Interfaith Forum and several other area interfaith groups, developing strong ties with Muslims, Protestants and other local denominations. He continued to teach courses at Temple B’rith Kodesh in retirement.
In recent years Father Brennan helped plan and implement two historic interfaith excursions: to Israel in 1998 and to Rome and the Vatican in 2005, where the Rochester Agreement was given to Pope Benedict XVI in person.
“He was just brilliant … he was beloved by the Jewish community,” said Goldman, who traveled with Father Brennan on both trips. Goldman added that she hopes she can live up to the honor bestowed on both of them through the Brennan-Goldman Institute, which was established at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in 2006 to continue furthering Catholic-Jewish relations.
“He really made the world a better place,” she said.
Father Brennan will lie in state at St. Mary Church, 15 Saint Mary’s Place, Rochester, on Wednesday, Sept. 24, from 4 to 7 p.m. with evening prayer at 7. Bishop Clark will celebrate his funeral liturgy at St. Mary on Thursday, Sept. 25, at 10 a.m.