Father Tom Donohoe’s resignation is once more lost in the mail

by Cecile Sandwen

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Father Tom in his offi ce. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

When Fr. Tom Donohoe stepped into the Radisson Hotel recently for a luncheon celebrating his 60 years as a priest and his 85th birthday, he found the parishioners of St. Irene had prepared a surprise. Greeting him at the door were a line of ten mannequins dressed in the costumes he has worn over the years in the annual St. Irene Mystery Theater. His comic characters were all there, from a Roman in toga, to an Egyptian Pharaoh. It was a special touch that paid tribute to a priest who is not afraid to laugh at himself and have some fun.

“I like to enjoy life,” says Fr. Tom. “I don’t think a priest has to be all seriousness. It’s great to get together and have a good time.” The affection of his flock may explain why each year since he passed the mandatory retirement age of 75, Fr. Tom has submitted the required letter of resignation—only to have it somehow “lost in the mail.”

But that’s okay. “I would like to stay as long as I can,” he says. He finds satisfaction in officiating at the special moments in his parishioners’ lives, “celebrating the happy times and helping out at moments of loss.”

In return, the parish community helped sustain him last year when he was recovering from a February heart bypass operation. Now he is finally able to resume golfing, and, with the coverage of his associate Fr. Romain Rurangirwa, can play hookey on occasional weekends for golf games with parishioners and friends. Right now he is helping organize parish tournaments at Butter Brook golf course. The congregation’s birthday gift of a custom-made driver and putter has helped his game, “I’m hitting much better with the new driver.”

When not golfing, he makes sure to do 20 minutes on the exercycle. He has changed his eating habits; “I obey all the rules now,” he says. As a result, his blood pressure is down, and his doctor has scheduled his next appointment for December. “It’s good news when the doctor says see you in six months,” he adds.

The demands at St. Irene are ongoing. We were interrupted several times by the phone, due to some upcoming weddings and baptisms. I commented that activity seems brisk, and Fr. Donohoe agreed, noting 40 students were in the recent Confirmation class. However, “We’re still fighting the battle of the ‘destination wedding’ with adults raised at St. Irene getting married on far flung beaches, eschewing their parish church.”

Some wonder if the life of a priest is lonely, but Fr. Donohoe dismisses the possibility. “There are people in and out all day long.” He adds, “I go to my family house in Lowell to get peace and quiet.” Fr. Romain is also an outgoing personality, available for conversation, and Fr. Donohoe has two sisters, both also in their eighties, who live in Cotuit and Lowell.

Fr. Donohoe recalls the mass held in April at St. Irene to celebrate his 60 years of priesthood as “just a wonderful celebration.” He particularly appreciated a special hymn that honors priests sung by the St. Irene choir. That same hymn was sung at his ordination. “It brought back all those memories of that day at Holy Cross Cathedral,” he says. “It doesn’t seem that long ago.”

He calls himself “A proud graduate of Lowell High School, class of 1944” and notes he was one of the few students at St. John’s Seminary that had not attended a Catholic school. His parents, who were Irish immigrants to Lowell, did not have the $60 per year a Catholic school would have cost. Young Thomas helped the family by working in a supermarket for 15 cents per hour. He recalls with fondness a trip to Ireland he took with his mother 50 years after she had left, a highlight of which was their visit to the “Duffy mansion in County Mayo,” the thatched roof cottage in which she had grown up.

St. John’s was “the West Point of seminaries” because of its regimented system. That has changed, and he finds young priests, raised in a more collegial system, relaxed and informal. Fr. Tom discovered he had received a good education in Lowell, “We couldn’t compete with the Boston College High School graduates in Greek, but I felt otherwise well prepared for St. Johns.”

Returning to the present, Fr. Tom admits he has much to be thankful for. At the luncheon celebration at the Radisson, he was asked to play “Wheel of Fortune,” and discovered he had won a trip anywhere in the world, sponsored by the families of St. Irene. He has been giving it some thought, and will probably use it to join a pilgrimage to the Holy Land for priests, organized by Cardinal Sean O’Malley next April. When he mentioned it to Fr. Romain, his response was, “That’s on my bucket list!” Fr. Tom laughs at the idea a young man would have a bucket list,” then he said, “Maybe that’s a trip we could take together.”

He considers the idea of retirement, and notes he is now the second oldest priest in the Boston Archdiocese. But then he says, “People get used to having you around, and I enjoy being with people.” As long as it is possible, it appears Fr. Tom will be there to serve. ∆