Priest remembered as a 'guiding light' to youth at Blessed Sacrament Parish
Mar 14, 2019
Nearly five decades after Father Michael Jennings as a young priest led youth ministry at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in Washington, D.C., some of the people he mentored there never forgot the impact he had on their lives.
Father Jennings, who was ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington in 1969 and was incardinated as a priest in the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1991, died in that diocese on Jan. 25. He was 76.
Several of the people whom he once served when they were youth at Blessed Sacrament helped organize a Memorial Mass for the priest at the parish in Washington's Chevy Chase neighborhood on March 2.
Patrick Waring, in his eulogy for the priest at the Memorial Mass, noted that Father Jennings arrived at Blessed Sacrament in 1971 “when we were in the seventh grade, and instantly became a key person in our lives, continuing through adolescence and into adulthood.”
Waring noted that some of them stayed in touch with the priest after he served in other local parishes and later moved to Tennessee, “having him preside at our marriages and other important family and school events.”
Waring, the chief executive officer for the Association of Alexandria Radiologists, also said that Father Jennings spent nearly a decade at Blessed Sacrament, “where he made such an impact upon the lives of the students in the elementary school, and his guiding light continued for many of us into our high school years and beyond.”
Another graduate of Blessed Sacrament School from that era who helped plan the Memorial Mass, Tom Ugast, said in a phone interview that Father Jennings helped organize dances, movie nights, camping and beach trips for the youth.
“He just was a guy we all admired. He kept us thinking about our faith every day,” said Ugast, the chief executive officer of the Nation's Capital Swim Club. “...He was there to help us.”
Ugast said the priest taught the youth there what it meant to be a Christian. This past fall, six of the Blessed Sacrament graduates drove down together to Tennessee to visit the retired priest. They spent the weekend reminiscing with Father Jennings, and he celebrated Mass for them.
“The point about his life was he gave his life to Christ to help others,” said Ugast, who said the Blessed Sacrament parishioners also admired the priest for later serving the poor in parishes in Washington, D.C. and in the Appalachian region of Tennessee.
Msgr. John Enzler, now the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, was a young priest serving at the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Maryland, when Father Jennings was at nearby Blessed Sacrament, and the youth groups from the two parishes sometimes had activities together.
“He was a wonderful, caring friend to so many people in the Chevy Chase area, and I was right next door in Bethesda and was able to learn by watching the great work he did for his parish and young people,” said Msgr. Enzler, a longtime parish priest in the archdiocese who also once led its Office of Youth Ministry and Catholic Youth Organization.
Father Jennings, a native of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, grew up attending Sacred Heart Parish in Washington, where a priest mentor there, Father Gerard Cole, was known for his youth ministry.
In his eulogy to Father Jennings, Waring noted that the future priest's father was assigned by the Archdiocese of Washington to establish an urban renewal project in Southeast Washington.
“Mike and (his brother) Earl attended many weekend meetings with their father as he worked on social justice and equality initiatives, and it was during these early years that he developed a significant respect for those less fortunate,” Waring said.
Michael Jennings graduated from Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington in 1961. After seminary studies at St. Mary's College in Saint Mary, Kentucky and at Theological College in Washington, he was ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington in 1969.
In the Archdiocese of Washington, he served as a parochial vicar at St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland from 1969-71, when he was assigned to Blessed Sacrament, where he served as a parochial vicar until 1980. He later served as a parochial vicar at Assumption Parish in Washington and at St. Ambrose Parish in Cheverly, Maryland.
In 1987, Father Jennings transferred to Tennessee to continue his pastoral ministry and was incardinated into the Diocese of Knoxville in 1991, where he served the rest of his life. He retired from active ministry in 2013.
In Tennessee, Father Jennings served as pastor of several parishes, including Blessed Sacrament in Harriman and St. Henry in Rogersville. He also served as a chaplain at the Morgan County Regional Correctional Facility.
Knoxville Bishop Richard Stika was the celebrant at the priest's funeral Mass on Jan. 31 at St. Henry Church.
Father Jennings was predeceased by his parents, George and Virginia Jennings; by his sister Mary Cumberland and brothers Joseph and Matthew Jennings. His survivors include a brother, George Jennings of California, and several nieces, nephews and cousins.
The year 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of Father Jennings' ordination to the priesthood.
The other priests ordained for the Archdiocese of Washington in 1969 included Father John Mudd, the director of development emeritus for Archbishop Carroll High School, and Father Michael Bryant, who retired as the longtime chaplain at the D.C. Jail and later founded the archdiocese's Welcome Home Reentry Program now operated by Catholic Charities that offers mentoring to men and women returning to their communities after incarceration.
Father Bryant, who attended seminary at St. Mary's College in Kentucky with Father Jennings, said, “Mike always stood out as a leader... He was just a person (whom) people were drawn to by his demeanor.”
Father Mudd, who like Father Jennings was a member of Archbishop Carroll's class of 1961, said, “I met him as a freshman, and we were friends ever since.”
He noted that his friend served as class president at Archbishop Carroll and returned to the school for their class's 50th reunion in 2011.
Father Mudd, who was the main celebrant and gave the homily at the Blessed Sacrament Memorial Mass for Father Jennings, said in an interview, “He lived a very humble, simple life.”
The priest said his friend “was a humble servant. He loved being a priest... He was very committed to serving God.”
About 150 people attended the Memorial Mass at Blessed Sacrament to honor Father Jennings for leaving his mark on the parish, and on the lives of the young people he served there.
In an email to the Catholic Standard, Waring said the Memorial Mass was “a great send-off for our friend, Father Jennings.”
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