They knew he was ill. The cancer â€” diagnosed last fall â€” was a serious threat, but one that Father James Fratus seemed to tackle with the same solemn optimism that characterized his parish leadership.
Never did the faithful of St. Brendanâ€™s believe that the man whoâ€™d led the parish for the last eight years would leave them so soon. On April 8 â€” at age 58 â€” Fr. Fratus died, prompting a period of mourning in this close-knit Catholic community along the Neponset River that continues this week.
Fratusâ€™s chief legacy, according to the lay leaders in the parish, remains the schoolhouse on Rita Road. In 2007, as the Archdiocese of Boston moved forward with a plan to consolidate Catholic grammar schools into one central academy, St. Brendanâ€™s parish feared that their school would be closed outright. In a pivotal meeting in the church basement that November, Fratus spoke up on behalf of the hundreds of parents and parishionersâ€” telling church officials and consultants that the parish preferred to â€œopt outâ€ of the regional planning and remain open as an independent school.
â€œI think heâ€™ll be remembered for saving the school at a time when there was little chance of it being left open,â€ said Christine Bailey, a parishioner who has worked closely with Fratus as a leader of the schoolâ€™s parentsâ€™ guild. â€œIt was going to be closed, but because he stood up, it stayed open.â€
John Oâ€™Toole, another parishioner who was active in efforts to keep St. Brendanâ€™s school open, remembers that Fratus was quick to jump on the opportunity to opt-out of the regional school modelâ€” something that many parishioners and even Fratus himself did not realize was even an option. Many were frustrated with what they saw as an ultimatum from church planners â€” a â€œsurvivor islandâ€ propositionâ€” in which each parish would have to work to stay alive at the expense of another.
â€œOne of the [church consultants] said in passing that people could opt out. Fr. Fratus caught that comment, stood up and said, â€˜Youâ€™re saying we donâ€™t have to participate.â€™ â€
â€œAs a result of what he did that night, we retained our identity and our school. Weâ€™re completely self-sufficient weâ€™re doing great,â€ Oâ€™Toole said.
Besides simply standing firm against the regional consolidation, Oâ€™Toole credits Fratus â€“ along with school principal Ellen Leary â€” with having the courage to â€œadaptâ€ to the communityâ€™s needs by phasing out the two upper grades, leaving a K-6 grammar school in its place.
â€œHe was willing to adapt and overcome these circumstances and it proved to be correct. He recognized that the future of the school is now in the early education. Thereâ€™s a waiting list now.â€
Fratusâ€™s cool confidence resonated in other ways through his hands-on ministry inside â€” and outsideâ€” the church walls on Gallivan Boulevard.
Nancy Leoncini, the secretary at St. Brendanâ€™s rectory, recalls that Fratusâ€” who was born and raised in Cambridge â€” was constantly engaged in quiet prayer, saying the rosary, an extremely â€œholy man.â€ Yet, he was also a handy fellow, who enjoyed getting his hands dirty gardening, cooking and making repairs.
â€œHe was always out digging, or climbing on the roof or up in the towers,â€ she laughed. â€œNothing fazed him. He just finished restoring each one of the Stations of the Cross piece himself,â€ said Leoncini, who noted that each statue weighed a couple of hundred pounds.
Eileen Griffin, another parishioner who worked on the council alongside Fratus, recalled this week how he loved to cook a huge meal for the volunteer group each year as a personal thank you for their service.
â€œYouâ€™d walk in the rectory and heâ€™d have this whole spread: cheese and wine for a little cocktail hour, chicken marsala, fish, meatballs. Dessert and coffee. It was a real smorgasbord. He did it all himself. He wouldnâ€™t even let us help with the dishes.
â€œHe is the main reason both the church and the school survived. He came to St. Brendanâ€™s at a very difficult time for both the church and school. He quietly mended, healed and rebuilt a strong parish and school and left in good financial and fiscal shape,â€ said Oâ€™Toole. â€œMany of us feel we did not have opportunity to properly thank Fr. Fratus. The best way we can do that now is through our continued support of both the parish and the school.â€
Chris Burke, who joined the parish council recently, said that no one knew just how grave Fr. Fratusâ€™s condition was in recent weeks.
â€œOne day he was going to have surgery and then a few weeks later he was gone. This neighborhood wouldnâ€™t be as strong as it is today without him doing what he did to keep that school open,â€ Burke said. â€œI hope they put the right guy in there to keep his work going.â€
Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, said this week that â€œno decisionsâ€ have yet been made about a replacement.
In a statement, Cardinal SeÃ¡n P. Oâ€™Malley said, â€œHe loved the parishioners of St. Brendanâ€™s and enjoyed serving them as their pastor. We will miss him. We pray that the Lord blesses Fr. Fratus with eternal life and we offer our thoughts and prayers for all those who mourn this loss in our community.â€
Fr. Fratus is survived by his parents James and Alice and his sisters: Ellen, Carol and Pamela. He was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden after a funeral at St. Brendanâ€™s on April 14.