Metro

Age hasn’t diminished the spirit of these senior priests

The Rev. Joseph Smyth, 89, knelt for a moment of prayer in the chapel at Regina Cleri.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
The Rev. Joseph Smyth, 89, knelt for a moment of prayer in the chapel at Regina Cleri.

When Patrick Kelly and Albert J. Contons became priests in May 1948, the Boston Braves were still in town, Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole were topping the Billboard charts, and gasoline cost about 26 cents a gallon. They said their first Masses in Latin.

Kelly and Contons, both 94 years old, celebrated their 70th year in the priesthood Friday at Regina Cleri, a residence for senior priests of the Archdiocese of Boston, where they both reside.

Contons, who drives to South Boston on weekends to say Mass at St. Peter Lithuanian church, joked about his lengthy career.

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“What’s frightening is to have a funeral Mass at the church and there’s somebody who died, and they tell me I baptized him about 70 years ago,” he said, with a smile.

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Contons was born in a third-floor apartment at 327 E St. in South Boston to parents who were immigrants from Lithuania. He went to Boston Latin School and wanted to be a doctor before he decided to enter the priesthood. He was ordained five days shy of his 24th birthday.

Contons was joined Friday by other priests in their 80s and 90s and together they reflected on the decades that they served in the church.

The Rev. Joseph P. Smyth, 89, went to Boston College, where he studied math and planned to be an actuary. He then went to Harvard Business School, worked for Ford Motor Co., served in the Air Force, and entered the seminary at age 26. He was ordained four years later in 1959.

Priests (from left) George Emerson, Joseph Smyth, and Albert Contons.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Priests (from left) George Emerson, Smyth, and Albert Contons.

He remembers his first Mass, in Latin. “We learned the hard way,” he said.

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It wasn’t until after the Second Vatican Council, which convened from 1962 to 1965, that priests began celebrating Mass in the vernacular.

Another resident of Regina Cleri, the Rev. George F. Emerson, 87, is a Dorchester native and member of the class of 1956. He reminisced about serving in Peru in the early 1960s with the Society of St. James.

“We had to ride horses when we first went down there,” he said. “I had no idea how to ride a horse.”

He recalled once when he was trying to cross a stream in Peru, but his horse had other ideas, and refused to enter the water. He climbed down and began pulling the animal forward, but it refused to budge, and instead pulled back. The game of tug of war ended when the horse suddenly yanked him forward.

“He pulled me right back into the stream,” he said.

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Emerson got out of the water and eventually the horse crossed.

‘[There’s] a need for me there, and I enjoy what I’m doing.’

— The Rev. Francis J. McGann 

“He wanted to show me that he was in charge,” he said, with a chuckle.

Another longtime priest, the Rev. Francis J. McGann, 93, said the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Joseph’s in Needham Friday morning, then stopped by Regina Cleri for a visit. He had another Mass to say at 2 p.m. at a nursing home in Needham.

For him, it was just another day on the job.

“No more than normal,” he said.

Priests Francis McGann (left), 93, and Larry Rondeau, 86, shared a light moment at Regina Cleri.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Priests Francis McGann (left), 93, and Larry Rondeau, 86, shared a light moment at Regina Cleri.

The Rev. Lawrence J. Rondeau, 86, another Regina Cleri resident, interjected.

“For him, normal means at least five or six a week,” Rondeau said.

McGann, who grew up in Woburn, was ordained in 1949. He recalled the day when he got his first assignment. He looked down at the paper and it said St. Brendan’s in North Bellingham. “Somebody started to snicker, and everybody else started to laugh,” he said.

“I had to get a road map to find out where it was,” he said.

McGann went on to serve at parishes in Walpole, Dorchester, and Cambridge, as well as St. Paul’s Parish in Hingham, St. Patrick’s in Lynn, and St. Eulalia’s in Winchester.

Today McGann is a monsignor and a well-known figure at St. Joseph’s, where he’s the senior priest in residence, a position he’s held since 1995.

“I think they look upon me as a relic,” he joked.

What keeps him going?

There’s “a need for me there, and I enjoy what I’m doing,” he said.

It’s also the people, he said.

“This morning a little girl, about this tall, came running over to me and gave me a big hug,” he said.

Moments like that are what he holds dear.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.