Diocesan News

Deacon, Age 90, Serving With Hard-Knocks Wisdom, Joy

Deacon John Flannery is retired, but still assists at Holy Family-St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Park Slope. “I love everybody here,” he said. “This is the most wonderful thing that happened to me.” (Photo: Bill Miller)

PARK SLOPE — People describe Deacon John Flannery as the embodiment of faith, hope, and joy — plus a fount of wisdom wrought from hard-knock lessons learned in the Korean War, the fashion industry, and recovery from alcoholism. 

Deacon Flannery is retired, but he still helps out at Holy Family-St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Park Slope, his home parish for nearly 20 years. 

At age 90, this former Benedictine monk and Air Force sergeant has a humble disposition and a ready smile. 

So it is hard to imagine Deacon Flannery as a bitter, angry man, but that is how he described his own past. It took a long time for him to realize it. 

“I found out about the inner anger when I was in rehab,” he said. “We got into it. And it was going back, back, back.” 

Deacon Flannery is the eldest of four children born to Alfred, a newspaper pressman, and Alice Marie Flannery in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. The family belonged to Holy Cross Parish, and the future deacon attended the now-closed St. Augustine High School in Park Slope. 

He said his father was a good but hard man who came from a family of Irish immigrants who did not show affection. His mother was a gentle woman who only seemed to get riled when he was called anything but his given name — John. 

“When I was old enough to date,” he recalled, “girls would call the house asking for ‘Johnny.’ But my mother said, ‘There’s no Johnny here,’ and she’d hang up on them!” 

At St. Augustine, Deacon Flannery was taught by the Christian Brothers. They inspired him to consider a religious life of holiness and service to God. 

But he did not want to wait for graduation. In 1948, at age 16, Benedictine monks let him enter St. Mary’s Abbey in Morristown, New Jersey, despite the fact he had not yet graduated from high school, which most abbeys at the time required. 

To Make You Holy 

Deacon Flannery, however, became a tailor who sewed habits for the monks. He went about his work, often to a soundtrack of Gregorian chants by fellow monks. 

“I loved it,” he said. “I learned so much from the monks there. The Benedictine rule is all about obedience to whatever the superiors are asking. And they were guiding you. I just fell into that form. The whole point of it was to make you holy.” 

Deacon Flannery fondly recalled the guidance of a monk named Father Vincent — a “wonderful, gentle man,” he said. But after about five years at the abbey, the kindly priest called for the young Brooklynite. 

“He said, ‘I just have a feeling this is not really what you should be doing,’ ” Deacon Flannery recalled. “ ‘I don’t think you should take vows.’ ” 

Many years have passed since then, and Deacon Flannery does not recall the monk’s reasoning other than he had a “feeling.” He was 20 years old, confused, and sad. 

“I said, ‘OK, I’ll take your advice on that,’ and I left,” the deacon said. “I was certainly disappointed — that I remember. I really didn’t want to leave.” 

Cold War 

Deacon Flannery returned to Brooklyn and looked for a job. The Korean War raged, so in 1952, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. He became a teletype communications specialist. 

He soon found himself at a forward-positioned radar station. Its location is now part of North Korea, he said. Winter temperatures there plunged to 50 degrees below zero. 

Deacon Flannery said he was hurriedly deployed without proper winter gear. The crews worked in shifts; the guys on duty wore heavy parkas, while those off duty burrowed into sleeping bags. 

“That was the coldest I’ve ever been,” he said. “And I never want to be that cold again. But I met some of the greatest guys from all over the country.” 

His next assignment was considerably warmer — Goodfellow Air Force Base in the West Texas town of San Angelo. There he began his college education at Angelo State University and enjoyed the local hospitality, even though he was a “Yankee.” 

Servant’s Heart 

Following his Air Force enlistment, Deacon Flannery returned to New York City, where he used his tailoring skills to work in the fashion industry. He specialized in men’s shirts, but he found this business environment too “cutthroat.” 

Deacon Flannery switched to social work and earned a bachelor’s degree at St. Joseph’s College and a master’s degree from Fordham University. He soon found employment with the Catholic Guild for the Blind under Catholic Charities, serving disabled and elderly people. He also worked at the Frances Schervier Rehabilitation and Nursing Home in the Bronx. 

Two co-workers, Sister Mary Nathanial at Catholic Charities and Sister Moira Daugherty at the Frances Schervier home, saw in him a servant’s heart. They separately urged him to consider the clergy. 

Recalling his departure from the abbey, and considering his age, he did not see himself as a candidate — at first. 

But the Diocese of Brooklyn started ordaining permanent deacons in the 1970s. 

He enrolled in the program’s second group and was ordained in 1978. Although retired, he is among the oldest deacons. Only a couple are his age or older. 

A Second Chance 

Deacon Flannery said he loved his ministry. But he also loved to drink. One day, while serving at St. Charles Borromeo in Brooklyn Heights, he had heated words with his pastor. Diocese officials learned that Deacon Flannery had been drinking before the tiff. 

“I was a heavy hitter,” he said. “I just drank too much.” 

The diocese sent him to a rehabilitation center in Minnesota operated by priests and staff who were all recovering alcoholics. 

Deacon Flannery thought he’d be there for three months, but it wound up being six. It was time well-spent unpacking his unresolved bitterness. 

“My counselor at the time — a brilliant woman — said to me, ‘You know, John, we got to work on your anger,’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘Why would you say that?’ I didn’t think I was an angry man. 

“Well, we worked on that one.” 

He realized his bitterness had festered over his early departure from the Benedictine abbey. But, he realized, his ministry did not end there. He left rehab with a second chance to revive it. That was 26 years ago, he said, and he hasn’t had a drink since. Over that time, he has immersed himself in serving the parishioners of Holy Family-St. Thomas Aquinas Church. 

Can I Help You? 

Deacon Flannery’s contributions are vital, said Father Rafael Perez, the pastor. 

“One of the ways in which his ministry is very much alive and active is presence,” Father Perez recently told Currents News. “To people, he’s got a tremendously big heart and a lot of wisdom.” 

The pastor added that parishioners look to Deacon Flannery as an example of a life of service. 

“From the time of his youth until the present, his own journey of faith has been extraordinary,” Father Perez said. “One of the things that amazes me about him is his capacity for faith, hope, and joy. His life embodies that.” 

Deacon Flannery said his life experiences, good and bad, help him serve. 

“Even as a recovering alcoholic, you’re a damaged person who was broken,” he said. “But you can see that in other people. My message is, ‘Can I help you?’ And if they say no, I’m hands-off except to say, ‘I am always available.’ 

“I can’t cure them, but I can help them,” he added. “But first, you have to be there. Deacons are to be helpful servants to the people, and I love it.”