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Homecoming for new priest at St. Matthew

Father Brett Brannen grew up in Statesboro

Homecoming for new priest at St. Matthew

Homecoming for new priest at St. Matthew

Father Brett Brannen is settling into...

Father Brett Brannen did something that no other priest assigned to pastor St. Matthew Catholic Church in Statesboro has ever done before. He grew up here.
He is mindful of the words of Jesus in Matthew 13:57, "A prophet is never without honor except in his native town." But to be a parish priest is, after all, not quite the same calling. Ministers of various faiths do sometimes serve where they grew up, and Brannen, whose duties at St. Matthew's began July 1, has been warmly received by his own flock and the wider community.
"People have been so welcoming," he said. "They're generally excited that I'm back. They're happy that I'm back, and I obviously have a very different role now. I'm a Catholic priest, and my job is to take care of the people of this parish, but also to take care of any person the Lord sends in my path. That's my job, just to care about people and to care for them."
Unlike the Southern priests of yore, Brannen comes trailing no mysterious background in Ireland or New York or the Midwest. He grew up on a Bulloch County tobacco farm, and indeed his father, uncle and grandfather owned and operated Brannen Tobacco Warehouses. He attended Bulloch Academy from fourth grade -- the year the school opened -- until graduation, and in high school was named an All State athlete in football and basketball.
He also played baseball and ran track, and has never completely abandoned his athleticism. He still runs three or four miles a day, most days, often with his black Labrador retriever Ellie Mae.

Assigned to Statesboro
In metro Savannah, where there are a dozen Roman Catholic parishes, it would not be so unusual for a priest to return to his city. But in a one-parish town like Statesboro, it is rare. Brannen, ordained at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah on June 1, 1991, was already the first priest ordained from St. Matthew's, which was founded in 1944.
The second priest to grow up here, Father Robert Girardeau, followed him in ordination two years later. Girardeau, 48, died of a heart attack last March while serving as pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Americus, mourned by that congregation as well as family and friends at St. Matthew's.
For Father Brannen, the assignment to his home parish stems from three principal causes.
First, his good friend, Father Timothy P. McKeown, who had served five years as pastor of St. Matthew's, was recently appointed vice rector of the Pontifical North American College, just outside the Vatican in Rome. He is scheduled to arrive there Aug. 8.
Second, St. Matthew's has a strong campus ministry at Georgia Southern University. Through that gateway, two young men have recently gone to seminary.
Meanwhile, Brannen spent the last six years as vice rector of Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Maryland, the largest Catholic seminary in the United States. Before that, he was a parish priest within the Diocese of Savannah, serving churches in Columbus, Albany, Macon and Augusta. For 10 years during that period, he doubled as director of vocations for the 55-parish diocese, working to find, recruit and train new priests.
"For 16 of my 20 years I've been involved with priestly formation either on the diocesan side or the seminary side," Brannen said.

Young Catholics
So as the diocese looked to continue the Georgia Southern campus ministry and develop its potential as a source of young priests, he was ready to help.
While serving at the seminary, Brannen even wrote a book to guide young Catholic men in discerning whether they are called to be priests. "To Save a Thousand Souls: A Guide for Discerning a Vocation to Diocesan Priesthood," was published in 2010. He says the Holy Spirit prepared him to write the book and gave him the grace to complete it.
Already 20,000 copies have been distributed throughout the United States, not bad for a book with a very specialized audience. Brannen estimates that around 80 of the 170 American dioceses are now using it. All proceeds from sale of the book go to provide free copies to young men interested in the priesthood. A Spanish version is set to be released at the end of the summer.
Tinged with sadness, the third reason for his return has to do with the fact that his father has lung cancer. Bishop J. Kevin Boland, retiring as head of the Savannah Diocese, knew of this and reportedly made Brannen's return to Statesboro a parting gift to Father Brett and his parents, Bob and Sylvia Brannen.
"Kind of his going away present to me, he said, was to send me here so I could be close to my dad, however many more years he has left," Brannen said.
As required of bishops upon reaching the age of 75, Boland submitted a resignation letter to Pope Benedict XVI more than a year ago, but his retirement became official only last week when the pope named the Rev. Gregory J. Hartmeyer as the new bishop of Savannah.
Bob Brannen, incidentally, remains a Baptist, and Father Brett is a Catholic because his earthly father left Statesboro for that most Catholic of Southern cities, New Orleans, to play football for Tulane. He played for just one year, but completed college and met and married a Catholic girl named Sylvia.
The Brannens raised their four children as Catholics. Their second child, the future priest, was born in Shreveport, La., but they moved to Statesboro when he was an infant.

Growing up
While he was growing up, St. Matthew's was located on Highway 80 and had a much smaller congregation than today. There were so few children that, as soon as young Brett was found willing to serve as an altar boy, he was serving Mass just about every Sunday.
"I felt an attraction to the priesthood," he said. "I couldn't understand why. It just didn't look that cool to me, you know, but I felt an attraction and that attraction would not go away even when I tried to make it go away."
He went to the University of Georgia thinking pre-med. During a summer home he took an EMT course at Swainsboro Tech, and drove an ambulance for a while. He also dated girls in high school and college, but realized that neither marriage nor medicine was his calling.
"God would never force us to be a priest," Brannen says. "It's an invitation. But I knew I was never going to be happy until I said yes to God and tried to do what he was calling me to do. And I was right. I love being a priest. I'm very happy, and I know now I could never do anything else."
He earned a BA in psychology at Georgia before his student years at Mount St. Mary's Seminary, where he received both a Master of Arts in sacred scripture and his Master of Divinity degree.

‘For a season’
As a diocesan priest, he owes his training to the diocese and obedience to the bishop. Brannen did not request his assignment to Statesboro, he notes, because priests do not ask for their postings, although the bishop may ask them for feedback before a final decision.
So he will serve here "for a season" and offers no opinion on how long that will be. He is, however, happy to be home from Maryland, which isn't quite his South.
"It is a delight to come back to my home town," Brannen said. "I'm a Southern boy, and you know, it's hard to get sweet tea in Maryland, and I love to hunt and fish and play golf and it's hard to do those things with all the ice and snow."

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