The following interview with Fr Tom was conducted in February 2017 in celebration of his upcoming birthday and recent anniversary of ordination.
Father Tom has shepherded St. Irene’s since 1988, and he remains the oldest working priest in the Boston Archdiocese. He celebrated his 65th anniversary of ordination in January 2017.
Fr Tom Donohoe
For the past 28 years, he has guided the church through a $2 million building project that shifted the site from a small white building near the post office to its current campus on East Street in 1997. The building project was completed in nine months, and the church community paid off the entire mortgage within nine years. During Fr Tom’s tenure, the parish community has also grown from less than 100 families in the late 80s to 800 families today, many from neighboring Westford, Chelmsford, Billerica, and even Littleton and Groton.
As he approaches his 90th birthday on April 9th, he shared his reflections on his vocation as a pastor and the strong family and community roots that he sees as central to his productive longevity.
Fr Tom talked about his vocation to the priesthood in understated tones. He traced “the seed of my vocation to playing at celebrating Mass as a young boy.” He added: “My parents were faithful, but not in a loud way. We went to Mass every Sunday at St. Margaret’s in Lowell, but we didn’t pray the Rosary. And I wasn’t even an altar boy. Going to Mass was just what you did.” He fondly recalled mission events: “The church was packed for missions. It was before TV, and these were exciting events.”
Fr Tom grew up in Lowell, MA in a working class immigrant community. While many immigrant groups went to schools affiliated with their churches, Fr Tom went through public school. “My parents didn’t have the $60 annual tuition fee to send me to Keith Academy.” Keith Academy was one of several Catholic high schools that merged in 1989 to form Lowell Catholic High.
Fr Tom graduated with honors distinction among 800 students in Lowell High’s Class of 1942. While 100 of his classmates enlisted for World War II upon graduation, Fr Tom was among five young men who pursued the priesthood. “There were seven students in the fourth year Latin class -- two girls and the five guys who took the seminary entrance exam,” Fr Tom said.
“When I told my dad about going to the seminary, he said that I should think about going into the Navy. The Irish held a revered sense for what a priest was. He didn’t want me to think too much of myself,” Fr Tom added.
Fr Tom said that he discerned his vocation more clearly over time. “We just took it one step at a time,” he said. “We never thought we’d pass the entrance exam -- it was hard. But when we did, we just kept going, to see if we could pass the next classes.” While the eight years of seminary studies were challenging, Fr Tom attributed the opening school year retreats as the formative experiences that clarified his vocation to become a pastor. Of the 60 seminarians who started with him, 20 were ordained. He said that the monsignor always emphasized the seminarians’ freedom to choose. “The door swings both ways,” Fr Tom recalled him saying.
The one area of seminary training, which has improved dramatically since his day, was preaching. He said, “I was looking forward to working in parishes and being a pastor in every way, but I wanted more training in preaching.” As a result, “a group of us got together and we read each other’s talks. One guy even had a wire recorder, and we could hear what we sounded like.” He said that storytelling is key, a gift he’s harnessed as an avid reader and through his Irish roots. “My dad always regaled us with Irish poems, stories and songs,” he said. He still starts working on his Sunday sermons each Monday.
“In the 40s, there was a lot of talk of changes coming in the Church,” but Vatican II was a couple of decades out yet. Fr Tom said: “I was glad about the switch to English from Latin. It really deepened our prayer life to speak in our native language, and my Latin wasn’t all that good.” “In English,” he said, “you can really pray from the heart.” He added: “It also made sense to turn the altar around and face the people, rather than have your back to them.” While he recognized that some changes that emerged after Vatican II “went a little far,” he’s seen “how a lot has come back and adjusted over time.”
Fr Tom continued: “The priest used to walk a little ahead of the crowd, but now we walk as part of the crowd. We all have different roles to play, and one is not better than the other.” “The changes after Vatican II humanized some of the priests. People used to hold priests on a pedestal, and it was a little too high for us,” he added.
Fr Tom’s considers his trip with Cardinal Sean to the Holy Land in 2013 among 30 priests as “one of the great experiences of my life.” He added: “To be where Jesus lived, taught, prayed, died and rose -- that really brings it home to you.”
The Cardinal leads these as pilgrimage retreats for the priests, during which they “renew priestly promises” and gain inspiration from “the great talks” the Cardinal provides. The “most impressive event” was celebrating Mass on Saturday night in the Upper Chamber, where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper and where the disciples experienced Pentecost. “That was the highlight of my life,” Fr Tom said. “Now, when I’m preaching about these events and places, I’m right there and I see them. It makes it easier to bring them back to life and really renews your faith,” he added.
In 2011, Fr Tom also faced a serious medical challenge. He’d spent his usual Florida winter vacation in January with his sister, and played golf every day. A few weeks later, a terrible stomach ache landed him at MA General where he faced triple-bypass heart surgery. The procedure was delayed because his blood pressure spiked “over 300.” He questioned the doctors as to whether an 84 year old was a good candidate for this procedure. “They assured me I was a good candidate, but I said ‘okay’ with some hesitation,” Fr Tom recalled.
Just before the surgery, he asked himself, in a matter-of-fact tone, “I wonder if I’ll wake up?” He added: “I was resigned. I am able to resign myself to things like this. We are a people of faith and that lifts you up. I just said to God, ‘sorry for anything wrong I did. Checking out --.’” It took a year to recover fully, but now he plays nine holes of golf every week in good weather, and only takes a half aspirin in the morning and a small cholesterol pill at night. “I just feel blessed and happy that I can continue to do my work,” he said.
Fr Tom golfing in Florida on a family visit in February 2017.
Fr Tom’s family connection between Lowell and Carlisle began in his youth during the 1930s. His father, who was a day laborer and out of work for two years during the Great Depression, finally landed a job working on a farm in Carlisle. “He walked five miles to Carlisle and back every day, returning at 9 PM - for $5 a week.” Fr Tom added: “There was no social security or unemployment in those days.”
Although Fr Tom understands the hardships of this Depression-era generation, he said: “As a kid, I never felt any stress.” The key was their backyard garden. “We never felt want. Never went hungry. My father had a vast garden of every vegetable, including potatoes, beets, carrots, and these sustained us through the winter. My mother had a green thumb too.” His mother also “worked in tea rooms,” small restaurants in Lowell. During World War II, she worked at Remington Arms to help support the family.
Fr Tom added: “My parents were so good. Even though we had very little, they always asked us to choose one gift for Christmas. I remember getting a camera one year and a drum set another year.” Fr Tom added: “There were different expectations then. No one had any money. It’s just the way it was.”
“We had a five-room apartment, and my two sisters and parents got the bedrooms. I slept on the screened-in porch until it got too cold. Then they moved my bed into the hallway for the winter. But that’s how it was for my friends too,” Fr Tom added. Fr Tom spent his days in the park playing pick-up baseball and tennis. “There were no organized teams then,” he said. He also spent a lot of time at the public library. “I’ve always loved reading novels, especially Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad.” He added: “Storytelling was in my Irish blood.”
Keys to Pastoral Success
Fr Tom attributes his work with youth as a strong thread throughout his ministry. “I’ve worked with young people a lot of my life, and young people are always looking forward,” he said. The young people “also keep me up on things,” he added.
Now he relishes the monthly Children’s Mass where he gathers young children in the center aisle during the homily to speak directly to them “with stories that grab their attention,” he said. He also enjoys marriage prep. He said that he “tries to meet people where they are, be flexible, and assure them that getting married is the most exciting experience of their life.” He still performs all the weddings and most of the baptisms at St. Irene’s. When Cardinal Sean O’Malley visited the parish, Fr Tom appreciated that the Cardinal noted that “we have a lot of families and young children.”
Fr Tom also emphasizes the importance of families to priests -- their own families and their parish families. After Fr Tom’s father died tragically at a young age, Fr Tom took the lead in keeping the family close. He has always spent a lot time in Lowell with his family, and he’s always kept his family home there, which he visits on his day off. He added with a chuckle, “one day a week I get away to hear the reassuring sounds of sirens at 3 AM. That’s my place to get away.”
When the Boston priest scandals made news a few years back, Fr Tom said, “I was shocked, and so were the brother priests of my generation.” Over time, he realized that “what happened to those priests who got into problems was that they didn’t stay connected to their families.” He added: “It’s important to keep your family close. They are a source of affection and care that everyone needs.” Fr Tom views his parish family at St. Irene’s an extension of that close family network that priests need.
As of now, he has no plans for retirement. He said, “Priests didn’t used to retire. They stayed with the parish, lived with a younger brother priest who took over more duties over time.” But Fr Tom hasn’t reduced his workload, even though his Parochial Vicar Fr Romain Rurangirwa “tries to get me to slow down sometimes,” Fr Tom admitted.
While the Archdiocese of Boston has a mandatory retirement age of 75 for priests, Fr Tom applies for an extension each year, a procedure that involves an interview with the bishop. Fr Tom said that his fellow priests who have retired tell him, “you’re making us look bad!”
A St. Irene’s parishioner said: “I find Father Tom's perspective refreshing. He doesn't consider the priesthood a job. In his mind, it's a calling, not something you retire from. We're lucky to have him. He is devoted to his flock. That point alone speaks volumes about the man.”
Saint Irene's Parish has had a long and profound affection for its Pastor. In March 2017, Fr Tom was featured in: