Father Philip Breen Recalled as One who "Lived and Loved Well" (Tennessee Register, Andy Telli)
Father Philip Breen, 77, who died Feb. 29, 2016, after a relapse of leukemia, was remembered as a wonderful priest, pastor, brother and friend.
"It's an honor and privilege to be with all of you to give honor to God for one who lived and loved well," his brother, Father Joseph Patrick "Joe Pat" Breen, said during the Mass of Resurrection celebrated on Friday, March 4, at St. Ann Church in Nashville, where Father Phillip Breen had served as pastor for 25 years before retiring last summer. "So many of you nurtured him and helped him be the great priest that he was."
A standing-room-only crowd, which included members of his large family, parishioners from St. Ann, Bishop David Choby, Abbot Cletus Meagher, O.S.B., of St. Bernard Abbey in Alabama, former Gov. Phil Bredesen and his wife Andrea Conte, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, priests and deacons, and friends from all walks of life, filled the church for the funeral Mass.
"He was a great priest. That was his primary call in life. All he did was centered around the fact he was very committed to his priesthood," said Father Pat Connor, a close friend of Father Breen. "He would want to be remembered first of all as a loving and caring pastor. St. Ann was his life. Those people were his life."
Rita Raymer was hired by Father Breen in 2005 and is now St. Ann's associate administrator. She was at his side with his family when he died.
"He became one of my best friends over the years," Raymer said. She said he was "amazing, always kind, compassionate. He built our staff and made us all whole and created an environment among our staff and the community at St. Ann that was extraordinary. When I came here, I felt it. I felt the love and support of this parish."
"He really knew how to make friends that would last forever," Father Joe Pat Breen said during his homily at the funeral. "The people of St. Ann you've been such a great, great blessing to him. He always considered how lucky and fortunate he was."
‘He loooved his family'
Father Philip Breen was born Jan. 15, 1939, the youngest of Anne Marie and Philip Paul Breen's nine children. During his life, he credited his parents' strong faith as one of the things that influenced his vocation to the priesthood.
"We were so fortunate," said Father Joe Pat Breen. "We had a mother and father who knew what it meant to pray, to know a loving God."
Father Breen remained close to his family throughout his life. "They are really, really tight," said Carol Fike, a St. Ann parishioner and friend of Father Breen's. "He loooved his family."
He was particularly close to his brother, Father Joe Pat Breen, Father Connor noted. "They were very good to each other. And they were always the first one they would turn to," he said.
Father Joe Pat Breen recalled that at his ordination in Rome in 1961, his parents were unable to attend and his younger brother represented the Breen family. "I was very proud of that and very grateful."
The Breens were parishioners at Christ the King Parish in Nashville, and Father Breen graduated from Christ the King School where he was taught by the Sisters of Mercy. "They were such an important part of my formation, along with my parents," Father Breen recalled at the time of his retirement in 2015. "They were way ahead in terms of (emphasizing the) worth and dignity of every person. The sisters constantly reminded us ‘you are somebody.'"
He remained appreciative of the Sisters' influence in his life and in 2013 dedicated the front wall of the St. Ann School hallway in their memory.
After Christ the King School, Father Breen attended Father Ryan High School and graduated in 1957. "I have very great memories of Father Ryan and my classmates do too," Father Breen once said. "We were very much influenced by two important people at Father Ryan, Father Frank Shea who was the principal and later was appointed Bishop of Evansville, Ind., and Father James Niedergeses, later Bishop of Nashville."
"He learned very early in life the three things that are most important," Father Joe Pat Breen said of his brother. "To have a good family; to have many, many good friends; to believe ... in a merciful God."
Influence of Vatican II
In 1959, Phillip Breen began his studies for the priesthood at St. Bernard Seminary in Alabama. After finishing his seminary studies at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, he was ordained on May 22, 1965, by Bishop Joseph Durick at the Cathedral of the Incarnation.
He was ordained just as the Second Vatican Council was concluding, and the events and documents of the Council remained a powerful influence throughout his priesthood.
"We had no idea we were about to enter into such a momentous moment in Church history," Father Breen once recalled.
"Vatican II was a great blessing," Father Breen said at his retirement. "It was an exciting time in the life of the Church. It was a hopeful time. ... The documents still stand as powerful guiding lights to the Church today."
But it also was a time of painful transitions, he said. "The changes in the liturgy were so momentous people thought if you're going to change that, you could change anything. They had been taught the Church was unchanging, yet there were all these changes. ...
"Instead of welcoming change, people were fearful," Father Breen recalled. "There was so much change in society already."
"Those of us who lived through it are very grateful despite the trials of implementation," Father Breen said of Vatican II. "It created a new appreciation of the Sacred Liturgy of the Church."
That new appreciation was evident when Father Breen celebrated Mass, said Deacon Marty Mulloy of St. Ann. "Liturgy was important to him," he said. Celebrating Mass "was a very prayerful, spiritual experience for him and that's something the people felt themselves. You knew he was praying and he wasn't just saying it."
Father Breen spent the start of his priesthood in Memphis where he taught at Memphis Catholic High School for Boys and later Bishop Byrne High School, while serving as associate pastor at several parishes. It was during a time when the civil rights movement was roiling the city, including the Catholic community. "It was tough," Father Breen recalled.
But he had the example and support of several priests who were active in the civil rights movement, including Fathers William Kleiser, Bob Hostetter, Paul Morris, Pat Lynch and Joseph Leppert, who had been his pastor at Christ the King while growing up. "I'm very grateful to those guys. They were a big help to me," Father Breen said. "I was so pleased as a young priest to have their support."
His experience in Memphis "had a profound impact on me as far as the depth of racial prejudice and the challenge we have right up to this day ... to keep the justice issue on the agenda," Father Breen said.
Life as a pastor
In 1971, Father Breen was called back to Nashville where he served for three years as associate pastor at St. Ann and as diocesan director of religious education programs. In 1974, he became a pastor for the first time serving at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Tullahoma, and in 1981, moved to St. Jude Church in Chattanooga.
While at St. Jude, Father Breen acknowledged his alcoholism and stepped down to seek treatment. Father Joe Pat Breen and other relatives were there when Father Breen announced to the parishioners his decision to seek treatment and drove him to the treatment center in St. Louis.
"We cried all the way to St. Louis," Father Joe Pat Breen said. "But it was truly one of the great blessings of life," he added. "He came home happy and healthy."
From then on, Father Breen was active in the Recovering Community, counseling and helping others suffering from addictions. It became an important part of his ministry, his brother said. "There is no doubt about it. ... When you've been in someone's shoes, you can have a better understanding of where they are. That was a ministry that was very important and beneficial. ... He took a negative thing and made it a very, very positive thing."
In 1990, Father Breen returned to St. Ann as its pastor.
"When he came, the parish was in a bad place," said Carol Fike, a lifelong parishioner at St. Ann and a close friend of Father Breen. "He turned it around. It was his leadership. He didn't do it by himself. He got us to do it. He led us when we needed to be led and pushed us when we needed to be pushed."
During his tenure, the parish facilities received several upgrades, including renovations to the church, school and gymnasium and the construction of a Parish Life Center.
He was well known in the parish for his attention to the appearance of the grounds, often doing the work himself.
"We always knew spring had arrived with the sound of a blower outside our windows, and then summer came and we would look out to see what appeared to be a big kid with a water toy," Raymer said during the retirement party for Father Breen. "It was just Father with his pressure washer."
But Father Breen was working on more than just the grounds at St. Ann. "I can't even imagine how many new ministries we have now than when he started," Fike said.
When Father Edwige Carre arrived at St. Ann as the new pastor last summer, he found "This is a very lively community. The people are very involved in a lot of ministries ... which is very good," he said.
"He did a great job," Father Carre said of Father Breen. "He did a good job of bringing people together and making them feel ... a sense of belonging to the church community."
For Father Breen's retirement party, St. Ann parishioner David Krause wrote a song in his honor, "Man of God." The St. Ann choir sang the song at his funeral.
"My song talks about how faithful Father was," Krause said. "He acknowledged life's struggles and was realistic, but he believed good would always prevail. So he was positive and grateful in the face of adversity. ...
"The song is also focused on gratitude," Krause added. "That was a guiding principle in Father's life. That's why the Doxology was incorporated in the song. He sang it often, spontaneously, and with a joyful heart, inviting us all to join with him."
"He was just so real, so sincere," Krause said of Father Breen. "He was one of my best friends. So many people felt that way. He didn't have to work at that at all."
‘Challenging in a positive way'
Father Breen was a strong supporter of Catholic education and St. Ann School and also was involved in many organizations outside the parish. He was the chaplain for the Ladies of Charity for many years and served on the board of Catholic Charities of Tennessee and as the Vicar for Catholic Charities, and in recent years was honored by both organizations.
"He was very supportive. He was always a very good listener. And something I personally appreciated was he was challenging. He wanted to know what we were doing and why," Catholic Charities Executive Director Bill Sinclair said of Father Breen. "He was challenging in a positive way."
Father Breen also served on the Presbyteral Council and College of Consultors for the diocese. "Whenever we were in those meetings ... he would always bring us back to remembering the priesthood is really a servant priesthood and we have to be humble," Father Connor said. "Mutual respect was important to him and collaboration. Laity, bishops and priests each had to be respected."
He helped establish the Knights of Columbus council at St. Ann and twice served as the State Chaplain for the Knights.
As pastor, Father Breen also opened St. Ann to several ethnic groups to celebrate Mass, including the Korean and Sudanese Catholic communities and the Hispanic community at St. Ann.
"The beauty and diversity of St. Ann is a reflection of the man he was. Everyone is welcome at St. Ann," Fike said.
"The greatest memorial is what he's left behind," Fike said of Father Breen, "and that's in us."
Father Breen was preceded in death by his parents, his brother and sister-in-law Paul Breen, Sr. and Betty Breen; brothers William Breen Sr. and Thomas Breen; sister Mary Jo Beavin and brother-in-law Bill Beavin; niece Susan Beavin; and nephew; Paul Beavin, Jr.
He is survived by sisters; Ann Treadway and Dorothy (Wallace) Williams; sisters-in-law Barbara Breen, and Jean Breen; brothers Hugh (Mary) Breen and Father Joseph Patrick Breen; and a host of nieces and nephews.
Concelebrating the Mass of Resurrection with his brother were Fathers Carre, Connor, Mike Johnston, Joe McMahon, Wil Steinbacher, Steve Wolf and other priests and deacons of the Diocese of Nashville. Pallbearers were Dennis Arnold, Harvey Bennett, Cedric Bullock, Tom Carlton, Fred James, Monty Kincaid, Phil Kincaid and Bob Szemethy. Honorary pallbearers were the staff at St. Ann, the Father Ryan Class of 1957, Sara Morris, Dr. John Peach and the Oncology Staff at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Interment was at Calvary Cemetery
The students and faculty of St. Ann School hosted a Celebration of Life for Father Breen on Monday, March 7.
Memorial contributions may be made to St. Ann School, Father Ryan High School and the Ladies of Charity.