Whether it was coaching football or in the classroom, Fr. Rob Brennan took great joy in seeing a kid learn something. A longtime teacher, chaplain and coach at Montreal’s Loyola High School, Brennan is in his dying days at the Jesuit residence in Pickering, Ont. Photo by Dan Cere

Fr. Rob Brennan: a life of caring

  • June 17, 2023

Three years ago, Fr. Rob Brennan told his students at Loyola High School that the only vocational aspiration that remained to him was a “good death.” Now, as he lies in his hospice bed at the Jesuit residence in Pickering, Ont., Brennan’s friends, family and Jesuit confreres are united in prayer that he should be granted such an end.

Brennan began his life in an army camp outside of Simcoe, Ont. After university, he was accepted to study law at Osgoode Hall, but his love of philosophy and theology led him to consider the priesthood instead. He said he “went shopping” and after a scan of the clerical landscape Brennan decided to check out the Jesuits. It was in the Society of Jesus that he would find his home.

His early years in Jesuit formation took him all over the world and the stories from those days became legendary. Fr. Leonard Altilia, superior of the Montreal Jesuit community and both a contemporary and friend of Brennan, said with a chuckle, “Rob had many stories, and I’ve often wondered how many of them were entirely true.”

In his tertianship, the final year of Jesuit formation, Brennan was sent to the Philippines where he worked in two leper colonies. He spent time in Soweto, the black township in South Africa, in China and Thailand, and he worked with St. Mother Teresa. The retreat he led with Mother Teresa for her Missionary of Charity Sisters in Calcutta was one of the highlights of his career. He also forged a lifelong bond with the Indigenous people of Northern Ontario after serving in several communities there.

In contrast to those early peripatetic years, and to what Altilia jokingly refers to as the Jesuit “vow of mobility,” Brennan spent the majority of his religious life at Loyola High School, a Jesuit school in Montreal founded in 1896.

Arriving at Loyola in 1986, Brennan took up the role of chaplain. Despite serving in many other capacities over the 37 years, including two stints as president, teacher of religion and football coach, it was the chaplaincy that remained a constant.

Brian Traynor, a former teacher at Loyola who worked alongside Brennan as campus minister, says that he took his model of ministry from Brennan.

“Fr. Brennan was a very big proponent of what he called the ‘Ministry of Presence,’ ” said Traynor. “The most important thing was to just make yourself available to another person. You sit and you listen.”

Traynor recalls that Brennan had his “door open all the time and he had a lot of kids coming into his office just to hang out.”

Brennan was long a diabetic and his ill health necessitated protracted stays in hospital and rehabilitation centres over the years. But sickness did not prevent Brennan from continuing to serve. As late as February 2023, he was still arranging for school Masses to be livestreamed from his hospital bed.

Brennan loved to teach. In an interview he said, “The happiest time I have is when I really see a kid learn something.” He also loved to coach. Sean Donovan, now a teacher at Loyola, coached with Brennan shortly after Donovan had graduated and had come back to help coach the Bantam football team.

“Coaching with Padre was a blast. He was a guy’s guy who loved the banter and the camaraderie. His knowledge of football wasn’t great, but he gathered the right people around him,” Donovan said.

In the early days, the “right people” were often Loyola alumni, university students and young professionals who volunteered their time at the school. Donovan recalls that Brennan would always make sure that there was coffee and donuts at the early morning Saturday practices for the young coaching staff. That thoughtfulness did not preclude Brennan mercilessly teasing his oftentimes obviously hungover coaching staff.

His nearly four decades of work at the school meant that Brennan saw multiple generations of students pass through his care. Those relationships were often maintained past the point of graduation. Donovan, whose own marriage was officiated by Brennan, says that “what is unique about Padre is that everyone feels that he is their own personal priest.” Countless back issues of Loyola Today, the alumni magazine, are filled with wedding photos that picture Brennan alongside bride and groom.

Brennan did not confine his ministry to Loyola. In 2018, Brennan became the chaplain for Momentum, a Catholic faith community for single mothers.

Talitha Cere, co-founder of Momentum, said that Brennan came alongside the organization when it was in its infancy. He assisted at retreats, organized online Masses and Adoration during the COVID lockdowns and provided spiritual accompaniment for the women.

“Anytime we needed anything, he was there for us,” Cere said. “Momentum wouldn’t exist without him.”

When asked what element of the Jesuit charism Brennan best exemplified, Altilia, without hesitation, replied, “cura personalis,” a Jesuit term that translates to “care for the entire person.” 

“That is his trademark, he took good care of a lot of people,” said Altilia.

Brennan is currently in the last days of his life. His sister and brother-in-law are with him. He is receiving emails and phone calls from his many friends. Altilia, after a recent visit, sent a message to those friends: “Fr. Brennan is fully aware of the great affection that people have for him and, deeply grateful for the prayer and interest, he sends his love in return and asks for your prayers.”

To come to the end of life carried in prayer by those you have lovingly cared for and supported, by any definition, is surely an answer to the prayer for a “good death.”

Every boy who played Bantam football at Loyola will remember that every game would begin with a huddle in the end zone. Coaches, players and Brennan would gather for the pump-up and a prayer. Every huddle would conclude with the loud cry, “Our Lady of Victory!” and the equally forceful response, “Pray for us!”

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