Longtime diocesan priest Msgr. John Bracken received the gift of a lifetime for his 80th birthday.
In what came as a complete surprise, St. Francis de Sales, Belle Harbor, announced on Nov. 15 that the parish school’s gymnasium would now be named in his honor. Msgr. Bracken’s ties to the diocesan sports scene run deep.
As a huge Brooklyn Dodgers fan, he played Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) baseball at St. Benedict Joseph Labre, Richmond Hill. The parish did not have a gymnasium at the time so therefore did not have basketball.
During his time as a seminarian, he coached baseball at St. Benedict for 10 years before being ordained in May 1967. His first diocesan assignment was at St. Francis de Sales, where he served as an assistant for 10 years.
When he arrived in the Rockaways as a 26-year-old priest, Msgr. Bracken sought to expand the athletic offerings for the parish’s children. St. Francis only had six CYO boys’ basketball teams — one each in the Bantam, Rookie, Intermediate, Tyro, Junior and Senior divisions.
Immediately, Msgr. Bracken started an intramural basketball program for boys and began expanding the CYO program. The following year, a girls’ CYO program was formed. Soon enough, the parish fielded more than 30 teams, with the gymnasium becoming a hub of activity for local families. “The gym became the center of parish life on the weekends,” Msgr. Bracken said.
He also helped revive the parish’s famous Easter Tournament in 1968. Held during Easter week, the tournament featured players in the CYO Senior division and was a big attraction for college coaches given the level of competition. The tiny gym would be filled to the brim with spectators enjoying some high-quality hoops.
“The St. Francis de Sales Easter Tournament was big-time boys’ CYO basketball,” the monsignor said. Following his decade-long stay at St. Francis, Msgr. Bracken served at St. Teresa, Woodside, and Our Lady Help of Christians, Midwood. He then became the episcopal vicar of Queens North, the director of the diocesan Development Office and the vicar general for temporalities.
Once he retired in 2009, he served as an administrator at Holy Name of Jesus, Park Slope; Our Lady Help of Christians; St. Mary Star of the Sea-St. Gertrude, Far Rockaway; and then returned to St. Francis de Sales for two and a half years as he marked his Golden Jubilee in 2017.
The parish faithful never forgot his devotion to the CYO sports program. He also made it a point to have teenagers get involved as coaches or officials to keep them engaged in parish life.
“Eventually folks started calling St. Francis the ‘Evil Empire’ because of the basketball powerhouse that had been put together, both boys and girls,” Msgr. Bracken said.
As his 80th birthday approached, the monsignor was invited to celebrate Mass at St. Francis de Sales on Nov. 15 by the parish’s pastor, Father Bill Sweeney. At the end of Mass, associate priest Father Jim Cunningham wished Msgr. Bracken a special happy birthday before revealing the gym’s new name: the John J. Bracken Gymnasium.
“In the Rockaways, there are no secrets…only mysteries,” said Msgr. Bracken, who thoroughly appreciated the surprise gesture as he wiped tears of joy from his eyes. When the time is right, the parish will hold an official commemoration ceremony to place a plaque with Msgr. Bracken’s name and picture in the gymnasium.
The ceremony will be worth the wait, since it’s important for Msgr. Bracken — who helped shape the CYO sports program that molded so many young lives in the Rockaways — to celebrate with the parish’s children and families.
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