Priest with strong Dot roots takes charge at St. Brendan’s

John Connolly’s career as a churchman has followed an uncommon trajectory. After stints as a deacon and a newly ordained priest at two Dorchester parishes in the mid-1990s, the Jamaica Plain native and Boston Latin School grad was called to serve at the highest level of the Archdiocese. Connolly was a personal secretary to Cardinal Bernard Law beginning in 1997 and served him through the height of the clergy abuse crisis that forced Law’s eventual departure. Connolly has since served as a special assistant to Cardinal Sean O’Malley, focusing on the aftermath of the scandal that rocked the church.

This week, Connolly, 49, returns to pastoral duties at St. Brendan’s parish, which in March lost its much-admired leader of nine years, Fr. James Fratus, who died of cancer.

When the position at St. Brendan’s opened unexpectedly this spring, Connolly lept at the chance to minister again in the neighborhood.

“Fr. Fratus, he was a great guy and a terrific pastor,” Connolly said this week. “I never expected this parish to be open and it’s not something I planned for. When he did in fact pass away, I applied for the pastorate and, somewhat unexpectedly, I got it.”

His assignment officially began Monday, but Connolly has already been making the rounds, greeting parishioners at Memorial Day observances and at a Florian Hall benefit time last Friday. Even before he takes the altar for the first time this weekend, Connolly’s set about tackling his first goal: listening.

“I’m the newest guy at St Brendan’s,” Connolly said. “Especially in the first months, I’m going to be a listener and a learner before anything else and do my best to understand what folks’ desires are and to assess what I think we can do as a parish staff to best serve the temporal and spiritual needs.”

For the next year, Connolly will continue to split time between Gallivan Boulevard and the Archdiocese’s headquarters in Braintree, where he will continue his duties as a special assistant to the Cardinal.

“My job has been to coordinate the Archdiocese’s response to all of the various aspects of the abuse crisis,” said Connolly, who said the work has included everything from setting up new protocols for screening prospective clergy to negotiating settlements with the attorneys of abuse victims.

Connolly thinks his many years of experience at the Brighton chancery — and now in Braintree under O’Malley— gives him a broader understanding of the church’s mission and scope.

“It informed my perspective in a way that doesn’t happen very often. Most of us get ordained and sent to our parish and have very little interaction with the archbishop,” Connolly said. “It forced me to recognize the width and breadth of the archdiocese.

It’s easy to think of the church as only the way the church is expressed in your own parish. I’ve got a broader perspective, not more or less suited, but I think it’s a very helpful perspective.”

Also helpful, no doubt, will be his early training at the side of two of Dorchester’s most respected pastors of the last few decades: Rev. Dan Finn, whom Connolly worked under at St. Mark’s parish for three years in the mid-1990s; and Monsignor William Francis, who died in 2006, but served for three decades as the pastor at Holy Family Church in Uphams Corner. Connolly cut his liturgical teeth as a deacon under the direction of Fr. Francis and the late Sr. Rita Brereton, who assited Francis in running the parish, which was known as St. Paul’s when Connolly first arrived. Connolly served as chairman of a process that merged St. Kevin’s and St. Paul’s into Holy Family in 1995.

“Bill was first of all a great guy and then he was a great priest,” said Connolly. “He kept his sense of humor and had a profound sense of loyalty to the church as an institution, to his parishioners and to Dorchester and the city of Boston.”

Connolly followed Francis’s footsteps in another respect: He is now one of two Catholic chaplains to the Boston Police Department. His co-chaplain is Rev. Sean Connors, who is the pastor at St. Ann’s in Neponset.

John O’Toole, a St. Brendan’s parishioner who is active on the parish council, says that news of Connolly’s arrival has been warmly received.

“By all accounts, people are really, really excited,” O’Toole said. “He asked to be here which is a huge thing for us.”
Connolly said this week that he is “open-minded” about all matters within the parish as he seeks to learn and listen. However, he comes to the job with an awareness of how important the parish’s independent grammar school remains to the St. Brendan’s identity. The school on Rita Road is the only Catholic grammar school in Dorchester that remains under parish control. The remaining five grammar schools are considered campuses of a central academy named for Pope John Paul II. St. Brendan’s— under Fr. Fratus’s leadership— opted not to join the academy system.

“I see the school as an asset and an opportunity and not as a difficulty,” Connolly said. “I hope to involve more people in it and I suspect we can expand it to alums and parishioners and come together around the school.”