Extending God’s kingdom for 130 years

By  Luc Rinaldi, Catholic Register Special
  • June 1, 2011

TORONTO - When Gerard and Basil Breen were in the seminary, Cardinal James McGuigan, then the archbishop of Toronto, said to all the seminarians, “What’s this I hear about priests having business hours?”

Priests, he said, were to be available to everyone all the time.

The Breen brothers took the cardinal’s words to heart. At 94 and 84 respectively, Msgr. Gerard and Fr. Basil have been “open to the people” for a combined 130 years. This year, the brothers are celebrating the 70th and 60th anniversaries of their ordination to the priesthood.

The brothers were born in Toronto nine years apart. Together with their middle brother, Bill, they were a living example of the famous words of the iconic Canadian short story, The Hockey Sweater: “We lived in three places — the school, the church and the skating rink.”

But for the Breens, it was the church, not the rink, that became the true focus of their lives.

The brothers Breen, who all became priests, belonged to Toronto’s St. Vincent de Paul parish as they grew up in a deeply religious and musical family, where faith and music lived in harmony. Their father, a violinist, was the choir director at the parish and their aunt was an established organist. Together with their parents, the Breen brothers would pray the rosary daily, and Mass on Sunday was a given, said Basil.

The brothers credit shovelling coal with St. Vincent de Paul caretaker Tony Doherty as a formative experience. They recall spending time in the boiler room under the parish with Doherty, “a faithful man,” discussing faith and hockey, often in that order.

“There was never a time when I didn’t want to be a priest,” said Basil, who was ordained in 1951,10 years after Gerard and four years after Bill.

After being ordained by Cardinal McGuigan, Gerard served as an associate pastor at several parishes in and around Toronto before his first pastorate at the Mission Church of St. Louis. He was founding pastor at St. Benedict parish, a west-end Toronto Salesian church, in 1955, and would later start Holy Family Church downtown.

Basil, also ordained by McGuigan, began his service as a priest at St. Michael’s Choir School, where he had been a member of the first-ever graduating class several years prior. He then moved from St. Mary’s to St. Mary’s, the first in Brampton and the other in Richmond Hill — “and there’s more,” he assures. Basil would go on to serve at five different St. Mary’s parishes before spending 22 years at St. Thomas the Apostle parish in Markham.

“Every one you go to is really your home,” said Gerard of the parishes he’s served at throughout the years. “People make the parish.”

In 1992, Gerard became a monsignor — much to his surprise.

“I didn’t expect it,” he said. “I got a call from Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic and he said, ‘I’m making you a monsignor.’ ”

Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins will celebrate a Mass for the Breen brothers June 5 at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Markham, Ont.It was with good reason though. In addition to founding two parishes, Gerard had served as the chairman of the Catholic Women’s League, helped build Chaminade College School and was a trustee for Toronto’s Metro Separate School Board.

Unfortunately, middle brother Bill will not be joining his brothers as they celebrate their anniversaries. Bill passed away in 1994.

“Bill was the centre of the three of us because of his humour,” said Gerard. “He was a great guy for joy and happiness.”

Bill, a “social animal,” always seemed to be in between his brothers’ personalities. Gerard admits to always having a plan and staying organized, while Basil takes it “one day at a time.” But neither is hesitant to compliment the other.

“Caring, for sure, as always,” Basil describes his brother.

“Not any more than him,” Gerard says quickly, pointing to Basil as if it were a rebuttal.

After retirement, both brothers remained involved with the Church, helping to celebrate Masses when priests were away from their parishes.

Now the brothers can be found in their Scarborough condominium, where they live with their cat, Junior.

The two concelebrate Mass daily at their homemade chapel, and occasionally get the chance to celebrate Mass at their old parishes when their health allows. The brothers remain in good spirits and still have a sense of humour, even when Basil is wired with oxygen tubing — “watch the fishing lines,” he jokes.

On June 5, Msgr. Gerard and Fr. Basil will join Archbishop Thomas Collins at St. Thomas the Apostle parish to celebrate their ordination anniversaries.

“The brothers Frs. Breen are greatly respected among the priests and people of God wherever they have served and beyond,” said Fr. Richard Andrews, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle.

“Their zeal for souls and enthusiasm to serve God and Holy Mother Church in pastoral ministry is remarkable — an inspiration for holiness.”

The Breen brothers have made countless contributions along their faith journey. But of all their accomplishments, both agree on the one that makes them particularly proud, said Gerard.

“The extension of God’s kingdom.”

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