On this exceptionally hot summer afternoon in Sierra Madre, a party is brewing on the shaded lawns of Mater Dolorosa Retreat Center: a stage with musical instruments, a mariachi band warming up, chairs, tables, food booths and trees decorated with record albums hanging on threads. Overhead, a big banner declares “Father Pat’s Mariachi to Motown Party” as guests are just arriving from nearby St. Rita Church. The parish was standing room only for a special eucharistic celebration, filled with well-wishers who were giving Passionist Father Patrick Brennan a heartfelt send-off before he takes on new duties in Detroit as director at St. Paul of the Cross Retreat Center. (Passionist Father Michael Higgins — currently serving in the provincial offices in Chicago — is slated to become the director at Mater Dolorosa; he served at the retreat center many years ago.)The Mass and reception for Father Brennan is a way for married couples, young adults and folks of all ages to say goodbye and Godspeed to a man who shepherded them through the retreat process, personal prayers, and one-on-one counseling.For 18 years, the St. Louis-born Father Brennan served as retreat director for the bucolic center located in the hills above Sierra Madre. Countless retreatants from Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside Counties and beyond have experienced Father Brennan’s spiritual direction and Passionist charism. He’s a man whose gentle demeanor, enthusiasm and loving embrace will be missed but, those close to him say that his mission of spreading joy and the love of God will continue.“I know that the center won’t collapse when he’s gone, but he’s been part of the success of this place and I know that I am going to continue to do the work that he introduced to me when I made my first retreat,” says Joaquin Garay III who waited in the long line in the air-conditioned chapel to have a few minutes with Father Brennan.Joaquin’s wife Brandi credits Father Brennan with instilling a renewal in not just her husband’s spirit, but her family’s. They had strayed from the church, she admitted, but when Joaquin made his first retreat, “Father Brennan touched Joaquin like he’s never been touched before. Something clicked with Father Brennan and Joaquin has been a changed man. He is now considering becoming a deacon in the church. I get goose bumps thinking about what Father Pat’s presence has brought to my family.”Those are familiar words to many who have found in Father Brennan a spiritual director who listens, cares and responds to life’s tragedies and triumphs with dignity, an unwavering faith and a touch of humor that no doubt can be traced back to his Irish roots. ‘The church was where we belonged’The second of five children, Father Brennan describes his childhood as family-oriented and Catholic-based. “I have no knowledge of a Sunday, save for one or two times because of illness, when we didn’t go to Mass,” he says, adding that fear had nothing to do with not wanting to miss Mass. Rather, “the church was where we belonged.” And having the parish priest over for dinner frequently started Father Brennan thinking about a religious vocation. Educated by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and at an all-male high school run by the Christian Brothers, young Pat Brennan also attended Passionist retreats off campus. He was approached by the religious order to join them for high school, but he declined, saying that he wanted to stay in his high school and experience football games and sock hops. Still, the idea of joining the Passionists was on his mind, and upon graduation from high school, that’s exactly what he did, starting with an “intensive novitiate year,” or “a spiritual boot camp for religious life.” “Though I freely acknowledge being a dedicated extrovert,” he smiles, “this year of solitude and prayer was perhaps one of the most formative of my entire life.” Another important moment in his life that helped crystalize his vocation was the death of his older brother James who was serving in Vietnam. James was 22, a year older than Pat. The suffering his family experienced — especially his mother -- pointed the way for the young Passionist. “Even in that brokenness, I realized what a great gift this was, being about to be compassionate to others in their time of their suffering,” he says thoughtfully. It dawned on him that his profound loss would help him understanding grief in others.Following his first vows, Father Brennan studied philosophy at Bellarmine University followed by four years of graduate studies in theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He was ordained in May 1973, and continued his studies in the U.S. and in Rome, obtaining degrees and certifications in psychology, pastoral programs and doctoral studies. Father Brennan first came to Mater Dolorosa in 1973 upon the request of Cardinal Timothy Manning, but he stayed only one year. However, he assisted at various parishes in the Los Angeles Archdiocese including All Souls in Alhambra, St. Philip the Apostle in Pasadena and St. Elizabeth in Altadena. In 1995, he was appointed retreat director at Mater Dolorosa and this time stayed on.Of course, overseeing a retreat center wasn’t the ideal that Father Brennan had imagined for himself. “I really wanted to bring the Passionist charism to a poor Spanish-speaking country,” he says. “I wanted to see what it meant to be an alien in a foreign country. I guess the Lord has different plans for me.”Father Brennan’s longevity at Mater Dolorosa could be traced back to a life-and-death incident that put him in a coma for 11 days. Earlier in his travels, Father Brennan visited a foreign country where he caught a virus that lay dormant for 12 years. After being at Mater Dolorosa for about a year, Father Brennan suddenly collapsed and was rushed to the hospital where it was determined that his liver was failing.“I don’t remember a thing,” he remarks about the time in blackness. “I do remember waking up wondering where I was and how did I get here?”Father Brennan spent two months recovering in the hospital and eventually received a liver transplant. He stayed in Southern California to be close to the doctors who routinely monitored his progress. Today, he says, “I feel great. Great shape. Never better.”Preparing for his new chapter in Detroit, Father Brennan says that Mater Dolorosa has taught him to “constantly say ‘yes’ to the Lord. That is the path to holiness; saying ‘yes’ every day to the will of God. There is a great joy I have knowing that there is still work for me to do and that God isn’t done with me yet.” Back in the reception line, Father Brennan greets familiar faces with joy, slaps old friends on the back and smiles. “Always good to see you,” “Let’s keep in touch,” “Come and visit in the fall for the fall color.” He tells a married couple, “You be good to each other” and “Tell those boys of yours I say hello!”One lady emotionally asks, “Will you come back and visit?” With a glint in his eye, Father Brennan beams before enveloping her in a big bear hug. “I’ll be back, of course! You gotta have faith!”{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0719/brennan/{/gallery}