- Breen served as pastor at St. Edward Church for 30 years
- He was vocal about Catholic Church policies, sometimes earning him reprimands from the bishop
- Breen was vocal about societal and political issues, and he was a strong backer of education
Father Joseph Patrick Breen, a firebrand Nashville priest known for championing progressive stances on immigration, marriage and the priesthood, even when it got him in trouble with his bishop, died Saturday. He was 87.
Breen, a Nashville native, spent most of his career at St. Edward Church, where he was pastor for 30 years.
“We grieve tonight, but we know that we aren’t the only ones. Joe Pat’s family extended far beyond his blood kin,” Breen’s family said in a statement Saturday evening. “He loved everyone he ever met from the bottom of his heart.”
As Breen served his local parish, he was also an advocate and community organizer within the city and state, and the Catholic Church at-large.
Breen took a strong public stance against church policies prohibiting the ordination of female and married priests.
“With all the negative things going on in our Catholic world, our discrimination against women and the LGBTQ community, we are going to have to have married clergy to have the proper leadership we need for our church to continue to thrive,” Breen said in a 2019 opinion column for The Tennessean.
Breen’s criticism of church policy earned him three formal reprimands from church leaders, including one in which former Nashville Bishop David Choby threatened to remove Breen from the priesthood if he didn’t apologize.
Despite prior differences, the diocese acknowledged Breen’s service and current Nashville Bishop J. Mark Spalding attended an event in December celebrating Breen’s 60th anniversary of his ordination.
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Breen graduated from Father Ryan High School, then left town for college at St. Ambrose University in Iowa. He was ordained in 1961 after completing his seminary studies at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
Before his 30-year tenure at St. Edward, Breen served parishes in Memphis, Chattanooga, Cleveland, Murfreesboro.
The Diocese of Nashville messaged the diocesan priests about Breen’s death on Saturday, saying, “Let us pray for the repose of Fr. Breen’s soul and the comfort and consolation of his family.”
Breen was bold in expressing his stances on local, state and national politics, frequently writing opinion columns for The Tennessean. He criticized the Jan. 6 insurrection, supported Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal a type of Medicaid expansion known as Insure Tennessee, and condemned offensive remarks by former House Speaker Glen Casada.
Breen was an ally to the immigrant community through a ministry at St. Edward serving Hispanic parishioners. The diocese also considered Breen instrumental in the formation of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, the diocese’s first parish for Spanish-speakers.
He also established a scholarship in his name for Catholic school students and had financially supported a new Catholic school in Nolensville, expected to open in 2023.
“He didn’t treat people in the community outside of his family any different than he treated his family. He loved everybody,” Hannah Paramore Breen, Breen’s niece, said in an interview.
Hannah Paramore Breen saw her uncle five days before his death and during that visit, the priest asked her, “Is there anything that I can do for you?” she recounted. “That was his heart,” she added, saying he was still serving others even at his deathbed.
Bill Breen, Hannah’s husband and Breen’s nephew, once spoke with a sister at a Murfreesboro parish where Breen was a pastor, and the sister compared the priest to Jesus, Bill Breen recalled.
Breen was one of nine children. His brother, Philip, another well-known Nashville priest and community leader, died in 2016.
“The family wants to thank all the people who have loved and cared for and provided for Father Breen throughout his ministry,” Breen’s family added in a statement. “You were important to him and you are to us as well.”
Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter @liamsadams.