Barrett, Father John

1957, November 2

Date of Birth: 1895, September 12

April 5, 1958


No Memorial Card is Available

My Dear Confreres:

Some months ago, on Saturday, November 2nd last – the day on which we commemorate our dead – the news of the death of our confrere, John Barrett, plunged St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore into sorrow and sadness.

It was known that his health was seriously affected by a heart attack suffered ten days earlier. However, as often happens, affection for the patient had caused an underestimation of the nearness of the danger he was in. Father Barrett did not have the consolation of being called to God in the midst of his St. Mary’s brethren, but in faraway Michigan, where he had gone to pay a visit to one of his friends and classmates, Father Clarence Doherty.

His death was regarded by all as a personal grief. Actually, Father Barrett was the last survivor of the first group of Sulpicians who, in the fall of 1929, had opened the new building at Roland Park. Since then he had always stayed there; and, particularly in his last years, he had been the symbol of the permanence of a St. Mary’s tradition, the living bond between the priests of yesterday and those of today. With his death, a last chapter was finished in the story of the first faculty of the new seminary. We can only join our American confreres in mourning the last witness of a great epoch.

John Daniel Barrett was born on September 12, 1895, at Frostburg, Maryland, which – so to speak – he was not to leave. After his studies in the school of the local parish, he went to the Christian Brothers High School in the nearby city. In 1914 he was admitted to St. Charles College in Catonsville. But as he had never studied Latin or Greek, he had to stay there for five years, finishing up in 1919.

He then quite naturally entered St. Mary’s Seminary on Paca Street, and he spent two years there going through the Philosophy cycle. For his Theology he was sent to the Sulpician Seminary in Washington (now Theological College of The Catholic University of America). Already failing in health, he was several times obliged to interrupt his studies. To complete them, he took up residence in St. Charles College, teaching a little Latin and Mathematics while finishing by himself the Theology tracts he was missing by not being at the Sulpician Seminary. In September 1925, he received priestly ordination in St. Mary’s chapel at the hands of Bishop Hafey of Raleigh.

From before his ordination, Father Barrett had been attracted to the work of clergy formation and had asked to enter the Society of St. Sulpice. Archbishop Curley of Baltimore, ever our loyal friend, without any hesitation, gave him permission to join. He again went to Washington to take a licentiate in Canon Law. He stayed there two years. Later on, in spite of the jobs entrusted to him, he managed to give himself time for research on his own. In 1932, he obtained his doctorate on producing a thesis entitled: “Comparative Study of the Councils of Baltimore and the Code of Canon Law,” an eminently practical work which became a great help to the American bishops, facilitating the adaptation of local customs to the universal legislation of the Church.

On his leaving The Catholic University in 1927, Father Barrett was appointed to teach Canon Law at the Paca Street seminary. In the following year he was sent to make his Solitude in the mansion near St. Charles College, the mansion which sheltered so many of our American confreres. Admitted to the Society at the end of his novitiate, he was sent to teach Canon Law at Roland Park to which the upper three years of Theology had just been transferred. He was to fill that post for twenty-six years. Endowed with a clear and penetrating intelligence, he knew how to make the students love a subject often unappreciated by reason of the difficulties inherent in its very nature and the difficulties involved in its scheduling in a syllabus too restrictive to accommodate the programs that had to be distributed in it.

A state of failing health which progressively cut down his activity forced him in 1955 to give up his courses.

We cannot, however, confine our consideration of Father Barrett’s work only to teaching. He was a born teacher, but also much more than a teacher. When he came to Roland Park, he was still a relatively young man, having just passed thirty. He nevertheless showed himself equal to his heavy responsibilities as a seminary director and as an active member of the faculty which was responsible for the successful operation of a fairly large house and as a spiritual director – jobs which he kept to the end. Without reckoning the cost, he spent himself for the seminarians. His acquiescence in their service became in some measure proverbial. It might be asked if ever another Sulpician knew so many students personally as did Father Barrett. For the seminarians he was more than a friend. For them he symbolized the priest completely dedicated to the job of helping others to attain priesthood. For almost thirty years the students found in him an understanding soul who did not pay any heed to his own problems while resolving the spiritual problems whose solutions they were seeking. His complete good will, his readiness at all times to come to the help of those who sought his support, will for long cause his memory to be held in benediction by vast numbers.

We cannot omit mentioning a field of activity in seminary life in which he played a particularly active role. From the time of his appointment to Roland Park, Father Barrett was in charge of the Camillus Society, the medium of the apostolic work done by the future priests of St. Mary’s. With the ardor of the young, he threw himself into that task. It is enough to page through the old issues of The Voice to realize how much he was personally involved in Camillus work. Under his leadership there was organized an imposing ensemble of groups for the spread of Christian Doctrine in the local parishes, hospitals, orphanages, prisons, and even on busy streets and in the slums of the city. He sparked, up to 1946, the various projects of the students. It was a Camillus Society in full vigor that he turned over at that time to the younger hands of Father Hogan.

If we want to penetrate even deeper into the very soul of our deceased confrere, we will have to get beneath the outer surface of radiant joy (which gave him the nickname of “Happy Jack”) to get a hold on the supernatural energy of which that surface joy was the sign. Here we can call to witness one of his most intimate friends, Father Richard Lavelle, pastor of Ascension parish in Elmhurst, who was asked to express the feelings of the community in the funeral Mass held on November 7th in St. Mary’s chapel.

“My friendship with Father Barrett did not begin in the seminary. Actually, the first year he came to St. Mary’s he rapidly took such a big role in the house that in truth he roused my antagonism. I did not believe that he could be what he seemed to be, that is, a man so completely devoted to the seminarians that he was trying to anticipate their wishes, especially their deeply human wishes. The slightest things, as insignificant as they seemed to the ordinary observer, took on great importance in his eyes as soon as they became of concern to someone.

“It was only several years later that I began to understand that Father Barrett was not happy by nature. His kindness was not the spontaneous product of a nature in which God had implanted this quality. The better you knew him, the more you realized that in him every action was a willed and conscious act. The agreeableness he manifested was in reality a virtue acquired the hard way. For by temperament, underneath he had a need for understanding and sympathy.

“When reunions took place in the seminary, I admired the manner in which Father Barrett welcomed a visitor as soon as he came through the door for perhaps the first visit in a long time. Immediately, he greeted him by name. Such a cordial welcome did not leave the one who was the object of it indifferent. He had a wonderful memory for detail, for each one’s traits, for circumstances of the slightest things from the past.

“Finally, all – and I include myself – came to appreciate him. As I have often heard it said, in the friendship we had with him, we gave very little and received a great deal. Never did I leave him without having gained from him a higher estimation of my priesthood. For me, he was always the occasion of reviving my resolutions, although he never explicitly raised the issue. I better understood God’s gifts to me in the fidelity, the friendship, the kindness, and the delicacy that Father Barrett showed, not only to his friends, but also to all those with whom he came in contact.

“In my long experience with men, I have met few who have carried out in their lives the same conscientiousness as he. His showing deep concern for doing good – concern which inspired him in the varied circumstances in which Providence placed him – was a lasting source of admiration.

“The last two years were especially hard for him. They let us catch a glimpse of the great merits of his kindness in all regards and towards all. The effort he had to make to overcome his own temperament, his own wishes, his own suffering, and all the rest. We must remember that such an attitude was the fruit of real sanctity based on asceticism, forgetfulness of self, and the thought of God’s will. In his eyes, it seemed the way to let shine forth the Master into Whose service he had entered and Whose presence and person had to be brought to others by chosen witnesses.”

Holy priest and model Sulpician, happy and proud to be a member of our Society, Father Barrett has left to us all the lessons of his life. May our prayers accompany him towards the eternal rest that God alone can give him. May our prayers secure for our American province and the whole Society workers who take up the work of clergy formation with the conscientiousness and abnegation which the confrere whose loss we mourn gave proof of.

Again, I recommend Father Barrett’s soul to you, and I renew to you the assurance of my affectionate sentiments in Our Lord and Our Lady.

Pierre Girard, S.S.

Superior General of the Society of St. Sulpice