Father Joseph Brennan was born shortly before the Great Depression, on September 22, 1925, in Regina, Saskatchewan. He was the elder of two children. Joe, as he was called, led a very focused life, but also one filled with humour. The rock solid Catholic faith of his parents became a hallmark of his life as a Jesuit.
In the summer of 1944, on the occasion of his first profession in the Society of Jesus, Father Brennan’s parents came from Vancouver to celebrate with him. Tragically, his mother died on the very eve of his profession. A hard working student, Fr. Brennan easily completed his spiritual formation, then his classical studies and finally three years of philosophy by 1949. At that point, he felt called “to the frontiers” and went to Darjeeling, India, shortly after India’s independence.
Though he began his India assignment in the hills of Darjeeling, it was on the plains (Terai) that Fr. Brennan would spend virtually all his Jesuit life. He had a special concern for the Adivasi (first Nation) people of the plains. He served them first as a headmaster, then in several locations as pastor, and in his later years as a spiritual guide for seminarians and priests. People consistently received his spiritual counsel with grateful hearts. Fr. Brennan’s first assignment was to attend language school. He quickly learned to speak Nepali, then Hindi. He was always anxious to communicate intelligibly and over the years he became conversant in five or more languages.
Fellow Canadian Fr. Bill Bourke SJ, who shared many years with Fr. Brennan as a missionary in India, wrote of him upon his death: “Different, unique, a true companion on the road with Jesus and His companions.” Fr. Bourke also relates how Fr. Brennan always wanted to be a priest—but not a Jesuit! When he was asked why, he would reply: “Because I wanted to get to work soon—and Jesuits have long years of study!” As Fr. Bourke says, “Here’s a man who, years ago, felt he couldn’t wait to give Jesus to others, but who must have felt deep down that he had to get to know and love Him better before trying to pass on that love to others.”
More recently, skin-cancer and cardiac problems began to take their toll on Fr. Brennan’s health. Ever anxious to serve, he readily handed over his responsibilities to local clergy and laity. Meanwhile, he was always available to clergy, seminarians, seminary candidates and laity as his strength permitted. Well into his Eighties, Fr. Brennan communicated with supporters and others in his extended family through a periodic newsletter, even when typewriters gave way to computers.
In his homily at Fr. Brennan’s funeral Mass, Darjeeling Provincial Fr. Kinley Tshering, SJ said “Fr. Joe was truly a man for others and with others. He was humble and simple and very ordinary, and that made him extraordinary, a pillar of strength, of faith and love for Jesus, his Lord and Master.”