Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Father Bill Brennan: 'Wherever I went there was song'
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the June 8, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
Father William Brennan (1915-2006)
(Editor’s note: Father William Brennan died May 25 in Walla Walla. Just weeks before, he graciously consented to this final interview with Inland Register reporter Mitch Finley.)
There is more than one way, on a practical level, to navigate life’s joys and sorrows, and we all make choices about that. You could do worse than to follow the example of Father William J. Brennan, one of the Diocese of Spokane’s senior priests. Whenever he has had the chance, even today living in a convalescent facility in Walla Walla, at the drop of the proverbial hat he lifts his still considerable, 91-year-old voice in song.
Father Brennan loves to sing, and many times over the years he led sing-alongs at priests’ retreats and gatherings and in the parishes where he served.
He thumbs through a pack of snapshots taken at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of his ordination, in 1992, giving names and commentary. “There’s Father (Terrence) Tully (d. 2002). This is (Father George) McCabe (d. 2001). There’s Father (Albert) Austen (d.1991). Boy, he’s really enjoying it! There’s one who’s a little skeptical. That was when we sang the old Latin hymn, ‘Gaudeamus Igitur.’” Father Brennan sings out: “Gaudeamus igitur / Juvenes dum sumus. . .” “Let us rejoice therefore / While we are young. / After a pleasant youth / After a troublesome old age / The earth will have us. . .”
“There’s Bishop Welsh (d. 1999),” Father Brennan continues. “He sang along. Bishop (Charles) White, who died in 1955, “would hear us singing, and shake his head, and say, ‘Tut, tut; tut, tut.’” Bishop Bernard Topel, who died in 1986, frowned on the singing. “We broke the silence, you know. We’d sing the old songs.” Father Brennan sings out again: “Oh, give me a home / Where the buffalo roam / Where the deer and the antelope play. . .”
“I enjoyed parish life,” Father Brennan remarks with a smile, “but there were other things I enjoyed, too – singing, particularly. I promoted the sing-alongs. I remember the first one, at Mount St. Michael’s. It was a type of relaxation. We sang after supper. There was always silence until after supper. We sang with a gusto! I would lead the singing.”
In parishes, if people were reluctant to sing during Mass, Father Brennan would get them going. “Oh, sure!” he exclaims. “Wherever I went there was song.”
William Brennan was born Sept. 26, 1915, in Bridgeport, Ohio, “right across from Wheeling, W.Va.,” he explains, and he says of his love for singing, “I was born with it.” His parents were William and Jenny Brennan. The future priest’s father died when William was only two years old. Some years after his father passed away, young William’s mother moved her family of six children – three boys, three girls – to Columbus, Ohio, where she worked as a stenographer.
In Columbus, young William attended St. Vincent School, and following eighth grade, he went to the minor seminary at the nearby Pontifical Seminary, the Josephinum. “I was an altar boy,” Father Brennan explains, “and I served the early Masses at St. Ann Hospital, and there was one particularly old priest – at least, he was old to me – and about the time I was to graduate from the eighth grade, he said to me one day, after Mass, ‘Well, Willy, what are your plans going to be after the eighth grade?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you come down to the Josephinum, and we’ll see the rector, and we’ll see what we can do?’ So one thing led to another.”
Father Brennan declares that he “liked everything” about the seminary, “but the music particularly – the Gregorian chant. The seminary had a good band, a good band, and it had an orchestra. I played the French horn. What I enjoyed most about the seminary was the singing. What I didn’t much like was the classes in German literature.”
Bishop White recruited seminarian Brennan for the Diocese of Spokane. William Brennan was ordained a priest May 30, 1942. His first assignment was at St. Patrick Parish, Walla Walla. One year later, at the callow age of 27 years, Father Brennan was sent as “administrator” to St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Harrington. For all practical purposes he was the youngest pastor in the diocese, and four years later, Bishop White officially appointed Father Brennan as pastor of the Harrington parish. He was then officially the youngest pastor in the diocese. This was in an era when priests often were in their 40s or older before they became pastors. “There was a war on,” Father Brennan explains with a happy, self-effacing laugh, “and there was a shortage!”
Father Brennan stayed in Harrington until 1951, then returned to his alma mater, the Josephinum, to teach for two years. Subsequent years saw him carry out his priestly duties, and sing, in parishes in Wilbur, Cheney, Spokane, Clarkston, Dayton, Waitsburg, and finally Pomeroy, from 1981 until he retired in 1986.
About being a priest in general, Father Brennan ponders a moment, then says that over his years of priestly ministry he has enjoyed most “sharing with people – and music and singing! Even to this day, I promote sing-alongs” among the people in the convalescent center. “We sing the old songs. One day it’s a hymn-along, and the other day it’s just a sing-along. A couple of people who are close to me come and play the piano. We sing so many things, it’s like a kaleidoscope.”
Looking back on more than 60 years of priesthood, Father Brennan observes, “I was pretty much an optimist.” He thinks and thinks about whether there was anything about being a priest that he didn’t care for. No luck there. “I always look at the positive side of things,” he said.
Almost a quarter of a century of Father Brennan’s priesthood went by before the effects of the Second Vatican Council began to stir up parish life. “Exactly the point I want to make,” he says, “is that I was right in the midst of it, in St. Rose of Lima Parish, in Cheney. Later, they wrote up a parish history, and they said something complimentary about all the pastors, and what they said of me was a great compliment. I don’t know if they realized that it was such a great compliment, but it was for me. It said, ‘He helped us through the changes.’ That was the time when they turned around the altar, and everything was new, and we lost a lot.”
Father Brennan likes a challenge. He says that he didn’t find it difficult to make the transition from the old Latin Mass to the new English Mass, “because it was a challenge. I hated to see it go, but it was a challenge. I didn’t find it hard to turn around and face the people. It was a challenge! I hated to lose the Gregorian chant. But it was six of one, half-dozen of the other. You gain something, you lose something, and what you lost, it was too bad, but we lost it. The liturgy of Holy Week and the music of Holy Week, that’s what I regretted losing the most.”
He explains that he has already requested that two particular songs be sung at his funeral Mass. “One is my school song that I wrote for Mater Cleri.” In a strong singing voice that still hits the high notes, Father Brennan sings the song he wrote in Latin: “Mater Cleri, mater mi. . .”
The other song Father Brennan requested for his funeral is “in memory of the old days of the Latin. It’s the song from the end of the old Requiem Mass, sung during the procession out of the church, ‘In Paradisum.’ ‘May the angels lead you into paradise....’ I always liked that ending.” The great lover of song laughs with joy, and then he sings the beginning of the Kyrie from the old Latin Mass, his voice rising, falling, and rising with the ancient tones.
Along the way, Father Brennan worked up an hilarious impersonation of Adolf Hitler with which he regaled audiences for years. Also, he was an agile baseball player, often taking the position of shortstop.
Following his official retirement, in 1986, Father Brennan left his last parish assignment, Holy Rosary in Pomeroy, and moved to Walla Walla. “I joined the Walla Walla Chorale, and we went to New York. Those were good years. I helped out, at St. Francis of Assisi, particularly, but also at Assumption.”
Outside in the sunshine of a warm spring afternoon, in the courtyard of the convalescent facility he now calls home, Father Brennan points out the flowers he already planted this year. He smiles as the sun warms his face. He takes a breath and goes for the low notes: “’Without a song the day would never end / Without a song a man ain’t got a friend / Without a song the road would never bend….’
“That’s been my theme all along,” Father Brennan remarks happily; “that sustained me through my whole priesthood.”
(Father Brennan’s funeral Mass was celebrated June 1 at Assumption Parish, Walla Walla. A second funeral Mass was celebrated June 2 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, Spokane. Burial followed at Holy Cross Cemetery, Spokane.)