|Father Philip Breen, right, pastor of St. Ann Church in Nashville, talks with Father Michael Johnston and Sue Higdon of the Catholic Schools office. Father Breen will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination on Friday, May 22. He will retire after 25 years as pastor of St. Ann on July 1. Father Johnston will also be retiring this summer and the Tennessee Register will feature him and other retiring priests in future stories.
Under the leadership of Father Philip Breen, the hymn “Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow” is popular at St. Ann Church in Nashville.
“We sing that a lot here,” said Father Breen, who has been pastor at St. Ann for 25 years.
It’s an important reminder that the key to a successful parish and a Christian life is “the centrality of Christ at the head of the faith community,” Father Breen said. “The praise and worship of Christ is the number one activity (of the parish). The praise of God is the principal task of our lives. … It should permeate everything we do.”
Keeping Christ the center of the lives of himself and his parishioners has been the goal of his priesthood, which will reach 50 years with the anniversary of his ordination on May 22. St. Ann will celebrate Father Breen’s golden jubilee with a reception 5:30-8 p.m. Friday, June 5, at the church, located at 5101 Charlotte Ave.
Father Breen, who has faced several health issues in recent years, will retire later this summer.
Being a pastor – first at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Tullahoma and then at St. Jude Church in Chattanooga before coming to St. Ann in 1990 – has been “very special and very much a blessing,” Father Breen said. “I’ve been so enriched in my own spiritual life by the laity. … We have a lot of good people who love the church.”
Father Breen, the youngest of nine children of Paul and Ann Marie Breen, grew up in Christ the King Parish and graduated from Father Ryan High School.
His vocation was influenced by the faith of his parents, Father Breen said. “They were devout.”
He had several relatives who also followed a vocation into religious life, including two cousins who were members of the Sisters of Mercy and his uncle Father Thomas Nenon. “He was revered in the family,” Father Breen said.
There were other influences as well, including the Sisters of Mercy who taught him at Christ the King School. “They were such an important part of my formation, along with my parents,” Father Breen said. “They were way ahead in terms of (emphasizing the) worth and dignity of every person. The sisters constantly reminded us ‘you are somebody.’”
He also drew inspiration from Father Joseph Leppert, the founding pastor of Christ the King. “He gave us a great example.”
Though small, the Catholic community in Nashville at the time was tight-knit, Father Breen said. “There was a culture of Catholicism in the midst of the Protestant South. It carried us with a lot of care and activity. … It created the environment we were able to thrive in.”
When he started at St. Bernard Seminary in Alabama in 1959, he joined his brother, Joe Pat, as a seminarian for the Diocese of Nashville. Father Joe Pat Breen retired last year after serving as pastor of St. Edward Church in Nashville for 30 years.
After completing his seminary studies at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Father Philip Breen was ordained by Bishop Joseph Durick on May 22, 1965, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation. At the time, the diocese included the entire state, and there “was a big turnout of priests,” he recalled.
He celebrated his first Mass at Christ the King, and again, “there was a great turnout,” Father Breen said.
“I was nervous” celebrating Mass for the first time, he said. “It was still in Latin, you wanted to do it right.”
As he was ordained, the Second Vatican Council was coming to a close. “Vatican II was a great blessing,” Father Breen said. “It was an exciting time in the life of the church. It was a hopeful time. … The documents still stand as powerful guiding lights to the Church today.”
There were painful transitions following the Council, Father Breen said. “You’ve got to remember what was going on in the world,” he said, including the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, as well as the changes in the Church. “People were really stressed out,” he said.
“The hardest transition for people was the changes to the liturgy,” Father Breen said. “I had sympathy for those who had trouble, but eventually most of them did it. It was a credit to their faith. … Somehow Mother Church makes it through.”
Early in his priesthood, Father Breen served at several parishes in Memphis and as a teacher at Memphis Catholic High School for Boys and later Bishop Byrne High School.
In the late 1960s, the Civil Rights movement was roiling the city, including the Catholic community, Father Breen recalled. “It was tough.”
But he had the example and support of several priests who were active in the civil rights movement, including Father William Kleiser who was his pastor while serving at St. Joseph Church, and Fathers Bob Hostetter, Paul Morris and Pat Lynch. “I’m very grateful to those guys. They were a big help to me,” Father Breen said. “I was so pleased as a young priest to have their support.”
On the night King was assassinated in Memphis, Father Breen was in a clergy meeting at Little Flower Church, which was near the Lorraine Motel where King was shot and St. Joseph Hospital, where he was taken to be treated.
Everyone rushed out of the meeting and headed home, Father Breen said. On his drive home, he could see burning buildings.
His experience in Memphis in the late 1960s “had a profound impact on me as far as the depth of racial prejudice and the challenge we have right up to this day … to keep the justice issue on the agenda,” Father Breen said. “
In 1971, Father Breen was called back to Nashville where he served for three years as associate pastor at St. Ann and as diocesan director of religious education programs. With his three years as an associate and 25 years as pastor of St. Ann, Father Breen has spent 28 years at St. Ann. “I’ve lived on Charlotte longer than anybody else in the neighborhood,” he joked.
In 1974, he became a pastor for the first time serving at St. Paul in Tullahoma. He moved to St. Jude in Chattanooga in 1981, and returned to St. Ann in 1990. All three parishes had schools and he spent 41 years of his priesthood as a pastor of a parish with a school, he noted.
“This is a wonderful part of my priesthood,” Father Breen said.
“I’m really a great believer in Catholic schools,” he said. “I just really feel it’s an all-around good formation for young people. They get a good education, at the same time they get the values and teachings of the Catholic Church. Those values will stay with them.”
The values students learn in Catholic schools “all relate to the dignity of human life in all its stages.”
Having a school “increases the vitality and vigor of the parish. There’s no doubt about it,” Father Breen said. “It’s a principal ministry of the parish. It’s not the only one, but a principal one.”
During his 25 years at St. Ann, the parish has renovated much of its physical plant, including a renovation of the church, the school gymnasium, and building a new parish life center with a fellowship hall, church offices and classrooms.
The parish works hard to make the grounds look good. “It shows this is a caring community and this particular piece of property is set aside for the glory of God,” Father Breen said. “It offers a place of serenity and peace to worshippers.”
Once he retires, Father Breen hopes to slow down a bit. “I hope to be of some assistance to priests in the area,” and he wants to maintain contact with parishioners he’s known through the years. “I want to especially be available to parishioners of St. Ann’s and friends, especially when they’re sick.”
As he nears the end of his time as a pastor, Father Breen said, he feels a “tremendous gratitude” to the laypeople of St. Ann’s and the other parishes where he has served.