Farewell to a gifted priest

Funeral Mass for Diocese of Knoxville pastor and military chaplain; Fr. Joe Brando celebrated by Bishop Stika at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul

By Dan McWilliams

One would be hard-pressed to find an area of Church life that Father Joe Brando did not touch.

The priest of 49 years died at age 78 on Dec. 9, and his multifaceted ministry was remembered at a funeral Mass on Dec. 17 at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, where his life in the presbyterate began with his ordination in 1972. He was buried after the Mass in Mount Olivet Cemetery.

After his nieces, Megan Flynn and Shantih Brando, placed the pall on his casket in the introductory rites at the funeral Mass, a series of people representing the areas of Church life Father Brando influenced laid items on the pall. Mary Williams placed a Council of Catholic Women moderator pin. Roger and Annie Borrello placed a Marriage Encounter stole on the pall. Baron and Vicki Johnson placed a Cursillo crucifix. Jason McCulley laid down a Knights of Columbus pin. And Alexian Brother Richard Lowe placed Father Brando’s breviary on the pall. Father Brando lived his final days at the Alexian Village in Signal Mountain.

Thousands of readers of The East Tennessee Catholic knew Father Brando from his “Living the Readings” column, a commentary on the Sunday Mass readings, which appeared in the newspaper for more than 22 years. And countless more came to know Father Brando through his service as a U.S. Army chaplain, from which he retired as a lieutenant colonel, in Bosnia, Kosovo, and elsewhere and during Operation Desert Storm in the Middle East.

Bishop Richard F. Stika was the principal celebrant of Father Brando’s funeral Mass. Basilica rector Father David Carter concelebrated and delivered the homily. More than 25 priests from throughout the diocese also concelebrated. Deacons Gaspar DeGaetano and Joe Hartz of the basilica assisted at Mass. In attendance were a number of Alexian Brothers from the Catholic order’s Generalate Office in Signal Mountain.

“Joseph John Brando, priest of Jesus Christ, entered into heavenly rest on Dec. 9, 2021, after a mercifully short final battle with Alzheimer’s,” Father Carter said in his homily. “He was born on Nov. 1, 1943, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Although he was born in Brooklyn, he considered Tennessee to be his true home.”

Bishop Richard F. Stika, standing with the family of Father Joe Brando, gives the final commendation for Father Brando during the funeral Mass for the Diocese of Knoxville priest. The funeral Mass was celebrated at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul on Dec. 17.

Father Brando was baptized Dec. 8, 1943, at the Church of Our Lady of Angels in Brooklyn, where he also was confirmed on Oct. 21, 1954. He attended Our Lady of Angels Grammar School and Cathedral Preparatory High School. He studied for the priesthood at the Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception in Brooklyn and Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, N.Y. He was ordained for the diaconate on May 25, 1968, in Huntington by Bishop Vincent J. Baldwin. His priestly ordination took place at what was then Sts. Peter and Paul Church on June 3, 1972, with Nashville Bishop Joseph A. Durick presiding.

“In his 50-plus years of ministry, he served in many parishes throughout the state, including the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, where he was ordained in 1972, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Chattanooga, St. Patrick in Morristown, Our Lady of Fatima in Alcoa, St Thérèse of Lisieux in Cleveland, St. Jude in Chattanooga, and St. Mary’s in Gatlinburg,” Father Carter said.

Father Brando also served as associate pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Knoxville and St. Joseph Parish in Madison, Tenn., as well as pastor of St. Patrick Parish in McEwen, Tenn., and dean of the Smoky Mountain Deanery.

“He treasured his time as diocesan director of the Marriage Encounter movement and was the director of Family Life Services in the Diocese of Nashville,” Father Carter said. “He was also a strong supporter of the Council of Catholic Women. He was a proud member of the Tennessee National Guard, followed by an assignment as a chaplain in the U.S. Army.”

Father Brando was preceded in death by his parents, Joseph and Carmela Brando, and his brothers, John, Peter, and Thomas.

Father Joe Brando presides at a blessing of pets service early in his priesthood.

“We remember them in a special way in today’s funeral Mass, even as Father Joe joins the ranks of those entrusted to the mercy of God through death,” Father Carter said. “My condolences to Mary Mahoney, his sister; to Shantih and Megan, his nieces; and to all the family and friends of Father Joe. My gratitude for the presence of Bishop Stika, the priests and deacons of the Diocese of Knoxville, the Alexian Brothers, who showed such great hospitality to him in his failing health, and thank you also to the many faithful who have come to pay your respects and offer together these funeral rites for the repose of his soul.”

Father Carter remembered Father Brando as “a good gift-giver.”

“In fact, I have always been a little envious of the gift-giving gift he possessed. He always amazed me with the thoughtfulness of the things he would give,” he said. “They were the product of reflection and understanding of the other and spoke of a deep connection between the giver and the receiver. I remember the first gift he ever gave to me. When I was ordained a deacon in 2004, Bishop [Joseph E.] Kurtz told me I was to be assigned to the parish of St. Thérèse of Lisieux for my summer apostolate. This was the first time I had the pleasure of really getting to know Father Joe Brando. He took me under his wing and mentored me that summer. He would always ask me how things in the day had gone and wanted to pull out the wisdom I had learned and process it with me. He would listen to my homilies and give me good and honest feedback.

“This is where the gift came in. It was at the end of that summer parish experience, at the going-away party, that he presented to me a unique gift: it was the very first homily I had given at the parish. It was given to me in the form of the notes I had used: a printed page with all the marks—crossing things out, adding notes, and underlining things for emphasis. As soon as I had finished using it for the homily, I had folded it up and thrown it away in the garbage can. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was rescued by this thoughtful man who saw a discarded piece of paper as the perfect future gift. He had unfolded it and had it framed and gave it back to me. That was 17 years ago. Here it is now,” Father Carter said as he displayed the framed homily. “Such was the type of gift this man gave, thoughtful and sincere. But the first gift was not the last. He gave me the gift of mentorship for the next four years, as I was also eventually assigned with him to St. Jude Parish here in Chattanooga. I learned from him and gained wisdom about parish life, being a pastor, and being a father to the people. It was there that I got to know him even more and learned his life story.”

That story began in New York, Father Carter noted.

“He had come from New York, but we won’t begrudge his status as a Yankee, because he was actually a Mets fan, if I recall correctly,” he said. “He had come to Nashville to serve via a series of providential turns that he said would take hours and a few beers to adequately tell. But he was eventually ordained right here at Sts. Peter and Paul almost 50 years ago. In fact, this past summer he had passed by the basilica, and we discussed his upcoming 50th-anniversary plans. The plans are still on, but the venue seems to have changed. Now he will celebrate it at the Banquet Feast of the Lamb for all eternity. It seems that he will finally find some rest from
his labors. And labor he did. He got his doctorate in parish systems and how people and groups work together, and he put it to work in all his many apostolates.

“He was always engaged with many different apostolates and good works throughout the course of his priesthood. His involvement in many of these was represented well by the
items placed on his casket. These items were specifically requested by him and were devotedly placed on his casket by people who have grown to love and respect this man in his witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: Marriage Encounter, the Council of Catholic Women, Cursillo, and the Knights of Columbus. He loved the sacred Scripture. He prayed the Liturgy of the Hours with devotion, meditating on the psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles that inspired him. He preached with depth, insight, conviction, and wisdom. There are reams and reams of paper that can be filled with his many articles in The East Tennessee Catholic that brought the Scriptures to light. I must confess, I may have used his past articles from time to time to inspire my own preaching—yet another gift from this priest.”

Father Brando also “traveled extensively and had artifacts in his office from all around the world,” Father Carter pointed out. “He even had a piece of the Berlin Wall in his possession. He suffered in this life. He had brain surgery and battled thyroid and colon cancer, overcoming them all. He always seemed to be able to bounce back. And he never lost his hair! He was always wanting to learn, and he turned that passion into being an excellent teacher. At the time I first knew him, he taught ethics at Cleveland State Community College and enjoyed the opportunity to share the wisdom he learned with his students. Besides that, as well as being a full-time pastor of a large parish, he was also a [Tennessee] National Guard and Army chaplain. He served active duty for a time in far-off places, even war zones. But that was just a snapshot of this priest’s life. He had received many gifts, and he was generous in sharing these with everyone. He truly was a good gift-giver. Above all, he gave the gift of faith to so many.”

The late priest also “had his faults, too,” Father Carter acknowledged.

“He had great ideas and had a tendency to plunge right in without all the details worked out,” he said. “This is something I sympathize with, but which caused me to a say a few cross words when he brought 50 of his closest friends on a pilgrimage to Rome while I was still a student there but hadn’t arranged for a bus to take them around! We had to get them around by public transport, and there were a couple who had mobility issues—but we made it. It worked out in the end. God provides.

“One major flaw was that he loved staff meetings. When I was an associate pastor with him at St. Jude, the weekly staff meetings would go on for hours! But by now I have forgiven him these faults because I had also learned mercy from him. I, too, have my flaws, and as a young priest he showed me mercy when I messed up. He knew the frailty of the human condition, and he also knew its only remedy: Jesus Christ and the mercy He won for us on the cross. Father Joe Brando was such a good giver of gifts because he recognized that he had been given the greatest gift: his Catholic faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. This faith is where he found the answers to all his questions and desires, and he made a continuous invitation to all to find the answers to their life’s questions here, too.”

Father David Carter, rector of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, holds the original written version of his first homily that Father Joe Brando had framed and then presented to Father Carter 17 years ago.

Father Carter added that “in that faith we are privileged to share with him, we offer today Joseph John Brando, priest of Jesus Christ. We offer him back to the greatest gift-giver of all time, God Himself. We offer him in the context of the divine gift exchange. We offer to God gifts of bread and wine, the work of human hands. God in turn offers us His Body and Blood, the work of divine redemption. ‘In Him we have redemption by His blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of His grace that He lavished upon us.’

“We, Father Joe Brando’s family and friends and recipients of his many gifts, ask that by God’s lavished grace, this man, dedicated to God’s service in this life, might now receive the final gift of eternal life with Him forever.”

Bishop Stika compared Father Brando’s life to that of Servant of God Father Patrick Ryan, whose remains are at the basilica.

“I think it is so very special that we gather together in this basilica, where Father Joseph began, following his diaconate ordination, in his journey toward life as a priest,” Bishop Stika said. “In the presence of the mortal remains of Father Ryan, who never gave up, who was willing to give his life for the people of God whom he was privileged to serve.”

The bishop confessed that “I made a mistake the very first time I met” Father Brando.

“We sat in his office at St. Jude, and I said, ‘How did you wind up in Tennessee?’ An hour and a half later . . .,” the bishop added to the laughter of the assembly. “I understood that he was a Mets fan, and his favorite player was Gil Hodges. Over the years, I would have these wonderful conversations with Father Joe when he would come to my office with one thing or another, or he would often call me on the phone, without any agenda, without asking any permission, just to see how I was doing. Wonderful conversations.

“My last conversation with him, he came to the office, I think he was dropping off his will and his funeral instructions to [diocesan chancellor] Deacon Sean [Smith]. He came to the office, and we had a long conversation. He was getting a little fuzzier with details and such, but the one thing I appreciated, he said, ‘You know, Bishop, when we celebrate Mass, we always pray for the pope, and we always pray for ‘Richard our bishop.’ He said, ‘I don’t know the pope, but over the years I’ve known you,’ and he said, ‘Can I have your blessing?’ So he knelt before me, and I gave him my blessing, and I helped him stand up a little bit, and I knelt before him, a priest of God, and got his blessing, and he helped me up.”

Father Brando baptized a future priest of the Diocese of Knoxville.

“If you look at his casket, you see all the different representations of his ministry,” Bishop Stika said. “All you people here in this basilica are privileged to represent thousands and thousands and thousands of people that he touched in one way or another as a priest of Jesus Christ. Father Joe Reed told me that [Father Brando] baptized Father Reed, so his work as a priest is passed on to Father Joe Reed.”

Bishop Stika related a sad duty that he had to perform with Father Brando.

Father Alex Waraksa, associate pastor of St. Jude Parish in Chattanooga, is joined by fellow priests in sprinkling holy water on the casket of Father Joe Brando as the casket is carried out of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul on its way to Mount Olivet Cemetery for burial. A Knights of Columbus honor guard stands at attention

“A priest of Jesus Christ—that is his title. One of the saddest moments for me was when I had to communicate to him that he could no longer celebrate Mass, because he was getting a little fuzzy with the results of the brain surgery and the beginnings of the Alzheimer’s. But it was devastating to him that he could no longer say Mass at all,” the bishop said.

“That was devastating, but I do think there is a unique relationship between Father Ryan and Father Joseph Brando—it is this (pointing to the altar) and it’s that (pointing to the crucifix). Jesus standing at the altar of sacrifice for us. Father Joe continued to pray for us, and the altar reminds us of the magnificent life that can be lived by a priest of Jesus Christ. I will always treasure those moments when he would call me out of the blue and just say, ‘How are you doing?’ There were long discussions about his homilies. For over 22 years, his homilies were published in our diocesan paper. Father Carter, you’re not alone. I admit it, I plagiarized a little bit. But he had this depth, and no doubt he learned that depth not in Brooklyn but in Tennessee.”

Bishop Stika expressed gratitude toward Father Brando’s sister.

“To Mary and to the family and to those you represent, I just want to say thank you, because they say the very first seminary is in the home where the child grows up. And then they go to other seminaries and other experiences, this priest of Jesus Christ. He also served our military with love and devotion. Sure, he liked to travel, because he wanted to experience the world that God created and all the many cultures. He might have retired three or four times, and he would always come back, even when he was living with the Alexian Brothers. He wanted to come back, and I told him, ‘Your assignment now is to be a witness of the good people of the Alexian Brothers,’ and he was.

“I just want to give thanks for his prayers for me and how he really worked closely with my predecessors, because he knew the unique relationship between a priest and a bishop. One does not exist without the other. And he was a friend. This is a true celebration of the life and the death and the journey. For him, life is now changed, not ended, for a priest of Jesus Christ.”

After Mass, Bishop Stika called Father Brando “a priest’s priest.”

“He was a good man, a good homilist, an in-depth thinker, and a baseball fan. Wrong team,” said the bishop, a diehard St. Louis Cardinals backer, “but he was a baseball fan. The Mets.”

The bishop again referred to Father Brando’s columns in The East Tennessee Catholic and their use as a source for homilies.

“I think a lot of people in the priesthood did [use them that way],” Bishop Stika said. “They’re always looking for ideas.”

The Borrellos, who placed the Marriage Encounter stole on the coffin at the beginning of the funeral Mass, talked of Father Brando’s service to the ministry.

“He presented Marriage Encounter weekends for more than 30 years in Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, and many places,” Annie Borrello said. “He was a Marriage Encounter priest who presented Marriage Encounter weekends.”

“He was in ecclesial leadership with us in Georgia and Tennessee Worldwide Marriage Encounter,” Roger Borrello added.

Annie Borrello said “he touched so many couples, hundreds and hundreds of couples he touched by helping their relationships and their marriages.”

“He’ll be sorely missed,” Roger Borrello said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *