The oldest priest from the Diocese of Bridgeport, my friend Father Philip Brady, died June 21 at 103. He would have been 104 on September 16 and marked 79 years as a priest on December 18.
Father served for 35 years in the diocese, before retiring in 1995 from St. Margaret Mary Church in Shelton, where he was pastor for 27 years.
He was active until the end, celebrating Mass at Brookdale Orchard Glen senior community in Orchard Park, N.Y., where he was a resident. Until the COVID-19 pandemic, he celebrated daily Mass with others in the “Father Brady Chapel,” which the community built for him.
“They are very nice to me here,” he said in a 2019 interview. “They treat me like a king.”
His nieces and nephews visited him often and he led an active life. Once he played Mother Abbess in the production of “Sound of Music” and sang “Climb Every Mountain.” He regularly took part in performances of Broadway show tunes from musicals like “South Pacific,” “Les Miserables” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
I first met him in the confessional back in the late 1960s. It didn’t go well.
I was 16 and most likely had the usual accumulation of adolescent sins to confess. He was the new pastor at St. Margaret Mary Church in Shelton.
The confessional was a dark and foreboding place, and all I remember is that he started to lecture me about the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s bleak vision of modern man…which Father adapted to my teenage mentality.
The image he evoked, as I recall, was of a scraggily adolescent with oily hair and torn jeans (we didn’t have tattoos and body piercings back then) standing alone on an iceberg in the middle of a vast ocean, being tossed about by frothy and tempestuous waves. He assured me I didn’t want that to be my life.
Decades later, when I recall that exchange, for the life of me I can’t imagine what I said to take us down that rabbit hole. But whatever he said helped, and I owe him for that and much more.
Our friendship grew, and I still recall the time my girlfriend Debbie and I went to see him about starting a youth group we called “Get Together,” which met weekly in the church hall and attracted a collection of young people who wanted a place to belong, back at a time during the Vietnam era when parents and kids typically found themselves at loggerheads over what was notoriously called “the Generation Gap.”
I saw him on and off over the years but never realized how close he became to my parents during that time.
My father, who was a carpenter, often did renovations for him, and they became close friends, so close Father would tell me they were like brothers. So I guess it was somewhat providential that my father got into recovery after 40 years of drinking at the Wednesday night AA meeting in the St. Margaret Mary church hall, where a lot of other men and women found sobriety.
For years, my mother worked in the rectory and later as the director of religious education for him. When both my parents got sick, he would bring them Communion and hear their confessions…which was no small achievement when it came to my father, who hadn’t received the sacrament since he was a kid, growing up on the East Side of Bridgeport across the street from St. Mary Church.
I’m pretty sure that Father also gave me my first writing assignment. He asked me to write the script for a parish musical revue called “Hello, Neighbor.”
Over the years, he would regularly send me kind notes about something I had written and include his own self-published essays on topics such as Church History, the principles of Catholic education and his autobiography. To this day, they occupy a place of honor on my bookshelf.
In 2001, my wife Sandy and I met him at Happy Hour Restaurant in Wells River, Vermont at a time I was finally ready to leave society behind and move to a cabin in the North Country, where he was living and helping out at several parishes in Vermont and New Hampshire. He gave us good advice and got us started on our adventure to live off the grid. We bought a small farm and prepared for a great escape that never happened.
I look back at all the places where our lives intersected, and I realize the incalculable effect that one priest can have in his life when he’s led by God’s grace.
Several years ago, as he was approaching his 100th birthday, he took the time to tell me about his life. It was a remarkable story.
In 1919, his mother Dorothy took two-month-old Philip to downtown Rochester for a parade celebrating Armistice Day—the end of the War to End All Wars. She had great hopes for her newborn baby because she’d once been told she would be the mother of a priest.
And that prayer was answered.
Looking back on his life at 100, Father said, “I’ve been very happy in my years as a priest. I never considered being anything else.”
The middle child of five, with two older brothers and two younger sisters, young Philip entered St. Mark’s Elementary School in Buffalo in 1924.
“I can still remember Father Shea coming into our third-grade classroom,” he recalled. “He asked, ‘How many boys want to become a priest?’ I raised my hand immediately and from then on, that was my vocation. No other profession attracted me. I was determined to become a priest.”
Of course, Father had help from his mother, Dorothy, whose prayers and encouragement led him forward in the pursuit of his calling. As a young woman at St. Cecilia Church in Harlem, she once visited the convent and told Mother Superior that she wanted to become a nun.
“The nun told her, ‘No, you’re not going into the convent. You’re going to become the mother of a priest,” Father recalled. So every day at Mass, Dorothy prayed that one of her sons would enter the priesthood. And her youngest did.
After eighth grade, he was accepted at the Little Seminary of St. Joseph and the Little Flower, but his family had to move to New York City because his father needed to find work during the Depression.
They lived in The Bronx, and he attended Cathedral College, a preparatory seminary across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. However, they returned to Buffalo a year later, and he resumed his studies at the Little Seminary. He later entered the Columban Fathers Order because he wanted to be a missionary priest and take the Gospel message to foreign countries, and on December 18, 1943, he was ordained with 13 other men at St. Joseph Cathedral in Buffalo.
“I wanted to go to China, but China was closed and they were kicking priests out,” he recalled. “The war was on and they couldn’t give us assignments in the missions so we were loaned to different dioceses.”
His first assignment was at St. Joachim Church in Buffalo, until he became vocations director at a seminary the Columban Fathers opened in Milton, Massachusetts. For 17 years, he toured the country, looking for young men who had a calling to the priesthood.
When his younger sister, who was a nurse in Buffalo, suffered a breakdown, he volunteered to care for her because he was teaching nearby at the Columban Fathers’ Silver Creek Seminary.
“I was the only one available who could help her,” he recalled.
With her treatment came financial responsibilities, but he had no money because missionary priests did not receive a salary, so he asked to be assigned to the Diocese of Buffalo. Since there were no openings, his superior suggested that he apply to the newly formed Diocese of Bridgeport.
The response was immediate. “Send him down and I’ll put him to work,” Bishop Lawrence Shehan told the superior, and in 1960 Father Brady arrived at St. Mary’s in Greenwich, where he taught religion at the parish high school. He was later transferred to St. Paul’s in Glenville. Then, in 1968 during the fourth week of Lent, he was named pastor at St. Margaret Mary’s in Shelton.
“It was really a difficult situation,” he recalls. “It took me quite a long time to straighten things out, but when I retired in 1995, they had a new church and rectory. All the bills were paid and there was $100,000 in the bank. We had a lot of food festivals, sing-alongs, Bingo and carnivals.”
In the years since retiring, he assisted at parishes in Woodsville, New Hampshire; Yucca Valley, California; and Wells River, Vermont. In 2010, he returned to Buffalo and moved into a senior living community with his brother-in-law.
Throughout the years, he has been friend and spiritual advisor to countless people, who have been endeared to him because of his compassion, humor, reverence and love of the Eucharist.
One is Pamela Rittman, director of the Annual Catholic Appeal, who met Father over the phone 13 years ago when he called to make a donation and she discovered he was from the town where she grew up.
Shortly afterward, he sent her some of his homemade fudge, which was known as “Father Brady’s Holy Fudge” in parts of Vermont and New Hampshire and sold at roadside stands and country stores. Father made batches of his fudge from a recipe he generously shared, and sent them to Bishop Frank Caggiano, Archbishop William Lori and Timothy Cardinal Dolan, among others.
“We immediately hit it off as friends and talked about local restaurants and the cold Western New York weather,” Rittman said. “He was there when I needed him and presided over the funeral of a family member and blessed our home in upstate New York. When I visited, I made sure to stop in and see him and share the news of the diocese. To my surprise, he often knew more than I did.”
By the time you reach 100 you know a lot about life, especially the religious life. During our last interview, I asked him to sum it all up.
“The priesthood can be difficult,” he told me. “You see a lot of problems, but you’re doing Christ’s work, which is the most important thing of all. Today, the Church gets bad press, and the sex abuse scandal has made it hard, but I always had my vocation and I never wanted anything else.”
And so, good friend, pray for us. And we’ll pray for you…until we meet again.
Editor’s note: Father Brady’s funeral and memorial Mass will be held on September 17, a day after his 104th birthday. Condolences can be sent to:
Mary Catherine Farley
5277 Southcrest Avenue
Hamburg, NY 14075