Marta Monzón said that from the first moment she met then-Father Mark Brennan in 2003, she knew he was a caring priest. A couple of months earlier, her husband – who was well known in the Gaithersburg business community and for his support of the Spanish Catholic Center there – had died suddenly. One morning when she was about to read at Mass, Father Brennan, the new pastor of St. Martin of Tours, introduced himself and expressed his sympathy at her loss.
“He gave me a hug,” she said, adding that the priest’s words of consolation then continue to give her comfort.
The native of Argentina said that in the years since, her pastor demonstrated that same caring, time and time again, especially to the parish’s large Hispanic community.
“He cares a lot about people,” she said of the longtime parish priest of the Archdiocese of Washington who will be ordained as a new auxiliary bishop for Baltimore on Jan. 19 at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.
In an interview with the Catholic Standard newspaper in Washington, the new bishop said his priesthood has been blessed by serving as pastor at the large multicultural parish in suburban Maryland, where since 2003 he celebrated Masses in English, Spanish and French for the 3,200 families there, most of whom are Hispanic.
“It’s opening you up to another world, a whole nother experience of language and culture. You learn about the differences among people, but also their common humanity,” he said.
Bishop-designate Brennan, a Boston native, was ordained as a priest for Washington in 1976, and in the mid-1980s, he studied Spanish and served in Central America for several months, visiting many countries there, and then began ministering to Spanish-speaking Catholics at parishes in the nation’s capital and Maryland.
Monzón said St. Martin’s longtime pastor demonstrated his personal approach to ministry in the parish’s spiritual, educational and charitable outreach to its 4,000 Hispanic parishioners, about half of whom have been there for many years, and the rest being relative newcomers in a transient area.
“It’s a moving community,” she said, noting that St. Martin’s has parishioners from all the Central and South American countries.
For many years, Monzón has served as the RCIA coordinator for Hispanic members of St. Martin’s, and she said that each year, about 70 Spanish-speaking children, youth and adults receive sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil there. Then-Msgr. Brennan always celebrated the Spanish-language Easter Vigil, which stretched past midnight, and then he would offer a blessing for the Latin American food at the reception afternoon, but couldn’t stay, because he would had to celebrate the 6 a.m. Mass Easter morning a few hours later.
“He gives everything he has for all of us,” she said, noting that the priest would meet at least three times with all the people preparing to receive the sacraments.
Two Dominican Sisters who are themselves identical twin sisters – Sister Judith and Sister Maristella Maldonado, provide family ministry at St. Martin’s, mostly to Spanish-speaking parishioners and members of the community. Sister Maristella said it is a blessing that St. Martin’s – which will celebrate its centennial in 2020 – is on a major street, on Frederick Avenue near downtown Gaithersburg, and has a bus stop right in front of the church, so people can take public transportation to the five weekend Masses there offered in Spanish, and also to the religious education classes and other programs there.
“It’s like a family here,” said Sister Judith, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima who has been serving at St. Martin’s with her sister since 2012. “That’s what keeps people here. They feel accepted, no matter what.”
The day before, they had helped a husband and wife, undocumented immigrants who had fled El Salvador with their four young children to escape gang violence, and they had come to St. Martin’s seeking help with food and rent, as the father continues to look for work to support his family.
“They’re all welcome,” said Sister Judith, and her sister said that when someone comes to the door at St. Martin’s offices seeking help, “We open the door and say, ‘Hi!’”
Sister Judith said that Bishop-designate Brennan, whom the Spanish-speaking parishioners know as Monseñor Mark, set the tone for that ministry, testifying for the poor and immigrants at local and state hearings, and also being known for his own personal acts of charity, throughout the day, and also at lunch hour, after work and in the evening. She said the priest was known for responding to calls for help whenever he could, sometimes giving people money from his own pocket and driving them somewhere, if for instance, they needed a place to stay.
Each day, the sisters are on the front line serving families in need, including people facing domestic violence, alcohol or drug addiction, and poverty and homelessness. And they said their pastor was there with them.
“When Jesus was here on Earth, he cared for everybody, whatever need they had. Jesus would attend to them and be compassionate to them. That’s Msgr. Brennan. Just like Jesus cared for everybody, that’s Msgr. Brennan at St. Martin’s,” said Sister Judith. “…If you tell him someone is in need, he cares for them,” she added, noting that the priest kept a list of names of people whom he prayed for, including all the pregnant women in the parish. “He knows every name,” Sister Maristella added.
Reflecting on the priest’s outreach at the parish, Sister Judith had tears in her eyes as she said. “For us, he is like a father… What does a father do? A father protects. A father loves. A father cares.”
Monzón said they will work to continue the priest’s legacy of love at St. Martin’s. “I take from him his love,” she said. “…I’m already 73 years old. This is my parish. This is my home.”
In addition to uniting people in faith, St. Martin’s also brings people together with food. On the first Sunday of June, the parish hosts a picnic, featuring homemade Latin American, Caribbean and Filipino dishes, along with hamburgers and hot dogs. Parishioners also celebrate the Nov. 11 feast day of St. Martin of Tours by holding a coat drive to emulate their patron saint, a soldier who according to legend, cut his cloak in half to clothe a beggar who in a dream revealed himself to be Jesus in disguise. The parish operates a food pantry and has a soup kitchen in the church basement.
After Mass on that feast day, parishioners join a procession to the school gym, where they again celebrate by sharing their native dishes. On Thanksgiving, parishioners pray together at a multilingual Mass before enjoying a holiday meal at home with their families.
Those efforts at fostering unity in the parish reflect the family spirit that marks Bishop-designate Brennan’s priesthood, said Sister Maristella. “It’s amazing. The French (mostly parishioners from Africa or Haiti), the Spanish, the Anglos, the Filipinos, we’re all together like a family, celebrating,” she said.
That is a spirit that the new bishop said he hopes to bring to his work in Baltimore, from what he’s learned as a parish priest serving people from many different lands who share their Catholic faith, and their food, too. “We can truly become brothers and sisters in Christ,” he said. “The Lord really does unite us.”