Nonagenarian loves serving God, family, friends
If 93-year-old Imogene “Jean” Brennan can’t be found opening St. Matthew the Apostle Church for morning Mass as sacristan or praying with the St. Matthew Cares prayer warriors or Holy Name Society, try to catch her working the food pantry or with the Silver Trotters at St. Rita Church, playing cards, line dancing at the Harahan Senior Center or doing low-impact Jazzercise.
“The word that describes her is ‘amazing,’” said Nat Willig, a co-member of Brennan’s weekly “Messengers from God” Come, Lord Jesus prayer group.
“She’s just a little fixture in church,” said Charlene Marsiglia, also a “Messengers from God” member. “She sits in the same pew every day.”
Her early presence in the church one morning startled a young seminarian, now Father Peter Finney, when he made a dawn trek to church to pray, recalled her grandson, Father Chris DeLerno, parochial vicar at St. Mary Magdalen.
“I usually get there around 4:30-4:45 a.m.,” Brennan said. “I fill the candles (liquid candles), the holy water and straighten the pews,” along with praying a rosary and other prayers.
Brennan was born in Tennessee and grew up Baptist. Her family moved to New Orleans when she was young, and she attended Wilson Elementary and McMain High School, growing up near Broad Street and Washington Avenue. She said she left high school to help her family and attended night school where she met her husband, Thomas.
“He sat across from me and offered to take me home on his motorcycle,” she said, laughing. Their three-year courtship involved many dates on that motorcycle, but once they married, Thomas ditched the motorcycle. He told her he saw too many relationships dissolve when a husband owned a motorcycle.
Brennan converted to Catholicism after meeting her husband. She said she noticed the strong faith in Thomas, and his mother, Alice Brennan, who lived to be 98.
“She always held her rosary,” Brennan recalled of her mother-in-law. “She was the one who helped me into the Catholic faith, seeing how close she was to the Lord.”
Brennan prepared for her sacraments with Father Drummond at St. Matthias before she married Thomas at St. Matthias in her neighborhood.
When she went to her Baptist minister to tell him of her decision to change faiths and get married, she knew she had made the right decision.
“He threw us out,” she said, not happy with her conversion.
Faith grew later in life
Brennan said hers was a typical Catholic family. She, Thomas and their four children – Patricia (deceased), Ralph, Tim and Irene – attended weekly Mass. The three oldest children went to Kenner High public school, while her youngest went to St. Matthew the Apostle when it opened.
Her faith deepened within two years of her husband’s death in 1998. She became a daily Mass goer, and five years ago became church sacristan.
She became more involved in prayer groups, using her strong grasp of the Bible from being Baptist and having a grandfather who was a Baptist preacher. Prayer group members said she could pinpoint Bible passages faster than anybody.
“She has a knowledge of the Bible that I didn’t have,” Willig said.
“She’s a real inspiration to me,” Barbara Bourgeois said. “She perseveres.”
Several spoke about Brennan as someone who shows concern and devotes time to others.
“Most people her age are all about ‘me,’ take care of me, but Jean takes care of everybody else,” she said.
Taking care of people is exactly how Father Chris, ordained in 2011, sees his grandmother, remembering her serving him and his brother, Father Kevin DeLerno, parochial vicar at St. Jane de Chantal in Abita Springs, hot chocolate often.
“She doesn’t just talk about faith, she lives it,” he said. “It’s amazing to see how she sacrifices for other people. She’s always been like that for her family ... praying for them. ... She’s constantly going. I hope I have her energy; I’m not hoping when I’m 93, but now.”
He realized over the years that his mother’s strong faith was obtained from her mother and passed to him. He knows prayers from others helped deepened his faith.
“As I’ve grown older and deeper in my faith I’ve seen the movement of the spirit in her,” he said.
Father Kevin DeLerno concurs with his brother about his grandmother putting others first and her willingness to take care of others.
“She loves to serve,” Father Kevin DeLerno, ordained in 2009 said. “That was one of the things that struck me. She’s a very down-to-earn, loving person.”
Brennan said she prayed especially for them while on a trip to the Holy Land in 2008. She brought back a purple stole for Father Chris says he wears over his alb during Lent, and a white stole for Father Kevin that he often wears.
Father Kevin said his grandmother’s faith didn’t waiver, even after losing several close family members and friends in a short period of time.
“She always seems to rooted in faith,” he said.