Called to Walk in Their Footsteps: Fr. Robert Brennan, C.S.C.

Fr Robert Brennan, CSC

Fr. Jim Connelly, the Superior of Holy Cross House, shares his last entry in his moving monthly series on some of the heroic, faith-filled men in Holy Cross who have blazed the path of holiness for the rest of us. Today, we learn about Fr. Robert Brennan, C.S.C., one of the community’s gifted pastors, who found himself in an experience he will never forget.

October 30, 2005, was a day to be remembered for Fr. Robert Brennan, C.S.C. A native of the Bronx, in New York City, Bob Brennan had gone to work for the U.S. Rubber Company after high school. Drafted into the Army in 1954, he had been trained in the use of I.B.M. equipment and programs and went to work for I.B.M. after his discharge. The salary was good and promotions came quickly. Bob was transferred to the Chicago regional office in a management position. But there was a nagging question: “Was this really what he wanted to do for the rest of his life?”

He joined some co-workers for a retreat at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, and there he met with the Vocation Director for the Holy Cross Fathers. This encounter led to a decision to take a leave of absence from I.B.M. and enter the formation program at Holy Cross Seminary in North Easton, Massachusetts, in 1961. Bob Brennan was ordained on December 21, 1968.

Fr. Brennan’s first assignment was associate pastor of one of the parishes entrusted to the Congregation of Holy Cross, where he discovered that parish work was a ministry that he liked and could do well. He served subsequently as pastor of Holy Cross parishes in Maine, Texas, and Vermont. He also served as national director of Family Rosary and as religious superior of the Congregation’s retirement house in Florida.

While in Florida, Fr. Brennan was asked in 2002 to assume the pastorate of Sacred Heart Parish in New Orleans, where Holy Cross priests had served for more than 120 years. For the next three years he settled into the life and ministry of this parish in the heart of one of America’s most exotic cities. Then, on October 30, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck and everything changed. Fr. Brennan and his associates at the parish had stockpiled food and water and had decided to stay in their three-story rectory and ride out the storm.

The exterior of Sacred Heart Parish before the hurricane

When the levees broke and the city’s pumps failed, four feet of water filled the streets and the ground floor of the rectory. The next day they had to wade through the water to get across the yard to the parish church, which fronted on Canal Street, a major artery on which rescue boats were moving. Fr. Brennan kept in mind the words of Jesus to his disciples in the boat during a storm, “Why are you afraid? I am with you.”

The interior of Sacred Heart Parish before the hurricane

Eventually, two men in a shallow draft fishing boat picked up Fr. Brennan, his two associates, and six other people who had gathered on the front steps of the church and took them to the New Orleans Superdome. While the Superdome was dry, it was a nightmare because of overcrowding, violence and a lack of facilities, food, and water. After a harrowing 24 hours, the team from Sacred Heart Parish boarded busses for Houston, Texas, where they were able to clean up, get something to eat and take planes to other parts of the country.

With the surrounding neighborhood destroyed by the hurricane, the Archbishop of New Orleans closed Sacred Heart Parish. Fr. Brennan eventually returned to Florida, but health issues forced him to give up parish work. He lives in retirement at Holy Cross House, Notre Dame, Indiana, where he regales his confrères with stories of his adventures.

“The footsteps of those men who called us to walk in their company left deep prints, as of men carrying heavy burdens. But they did not trudge; they strode. For they had the hope.” – Holy Cross Constitutions

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