Jesuit Father Joseph F. Brennan was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, on Nov. 17, 1925, the oldest of three children of Martin Brennan and Anne Marie Murphy, both of whom had emigrated from Ireland.
He graduated from St. John’s High School in North Cambridge, Massachusetts, in June 1943. By then, under an accelerated wartime program, he had already completed a semester of freshman year at Boston College. There, his sense of a priestly vocation had sharpened under the spell of the Jesuits he encountered. He entered the novitiate at Shadowbrook on July 1.
He followed a typical course of studies for that period: four years of novitiate and juniorate at Shadowbrook (1943-1947), three years of philosophy studies at Weston (1947-1950), and four years of theology studies, also at Weston (1953-1957). During regency, he taught Latin, Greek and religion at Cheverus High School in Portland for two years (1950-1952) and earned an M.A. in classics at Boston College (1952-1953). He was ordained a priest at Weston in 1956.
Though fond of classics and literature, during his theology studies Fr. Brennan had developed an interest in “the New Theology” and especially Scripture. He had also long thought that he might have a vocation for the missions and at the end of theology studies he proposed a two-year assignment in Jamaica to test the idea. So in 1957 he joined the staff of St. George’s College, teaching in the day and evening schools and accepting invitations to give retreats and help out in parishes wherever he could. In 1959 he went to St. Beuno’s, in Wales, for tertianship. He returned to Jamaica the following year, determined to find an apostolate that involved more than secondary-school teaching.
The Jesuit Vicar Apostolic for Jamaica, John McEleney, was determined to build structures to support a native clergy and one of his priorities was the expansion of St. Michael’s Seminary. In December 1961, Fr. Brennan and another Jesuit took up residence in the seminary, teaching whatever was needed to the small number of seminarians. For the next 30 years, Fr. Brennan’s work was largely involved with the growth of the seminary into a full-scale theological school in an ecumenical setting at the University of the West Indies, not only educating diocesan seminarians but also establishing programs to train married deacons and lay parish leaders. He served 8 years as its dean.
He took two year-long sabbaticals, studying philosophy at Fordham University and theological ethics at Oxford with the goal of better preparing himself for teaching at the seminary. At the archbishop’s request he also served for 10 years as Vicar for Religious on the island. In all these years he was at the same time involved in pastoral work in island parishes, giving workshops in Scripture and the theology of Vatican II, serving as chaplain at the University of the West Indies hospital, and increasingly directing the Spiritual Exercises.
In 1991 the provincial asked him to step away from some of his commitments and become superior of the community at Patrick House, adjacent to Campion College. He did this for seven years, while continuing to teach at the theological college and assist the archbishop in administrative and canonical matters.
In 1998 Archbishop Lawrence Burke of Nassau, in the Bahamas, also a New England Jesuit, invited Fr. Brennan to take on a parish there and help with the diaconate-training program and in the diocesan marriage tribunal. He enjoyed his work there but in 2001 health issues led to his being assigned to Campion Center, where he spent his last years keeping busy with community assignments, retreats and spiritual direction, and writing a never-published autobiography. His move to Campion reunited him with his younger brother Vincent, who had entered the Society as a lay brother in 1951. Until then they had never lived in the same community but now enjoyed each other’s company until Vinnie’s death in 2014.
In fall of 2015, his health gradually worsened and he died peacefully on Nov. 11, 2015.