ST. FRANCIS — About 10 months ago, James M. Brennan filled a sudden vacancy at the helm of Catholic Charities when then-executive director Hannah C. Dugan abruptly resigned, Dec. 10, 2009. In the months that followed, Brennan led the organization as interim executive director, while the board of trustees and the archdiocesan human resources office conducted a nationwide search for a new executive director.
Their search concluded Monday when Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, president of the board, announced that Brennan had been named executive director.
“I find Jim to be a man of deep faith, integrity, conviction and a strong advocate for the poor,” Archbishop Listecki said in an announcement to Catholic Charities staff. “His knowledge and service these past months, as interim executive director, ensures a comfortable transition for the agency; I believe he is the best candidate to lead this agency forward.”
Brennan, 61, graduated from Marquette University in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. Prior to beginning law school at Marquette in 1973, he attended the Institute for Irish Studies in Dublin and did graduate work in literature at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. He graduated from law school in 1976 and joined the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, something that delighted his mother.
“Both of my parents were committed to public service. My family was an exceptionally strong, Catholic family. Prayer was part of our daily life and it reflected our concern for the poor,” he said during an interview with your Catholic Herald, Oct. 18. “My mother was absolutely delighted — as I’m sure my father would have been, too, had he lived to see it — when I graduated from law school and joined the Legal Aid Society. Concern for the poor was embedded in our family tradition.”
At the Legal Aid Society, Brennan provided legal services to the disadvantaged and poor for 30 years, 25 of those years as chief staff attorney.
In 2007, he joined the Catholic Charities staff as Family and Children’s Ministries director, and in 2008, he was promoted to deputy director of the agency.
At Catholic Charities, he welcomed the opportunity to work with disadvantaged and low-income families and children in broader ways than just a lawyer can do, he said.
As interim executive director these past 10 months, Brennan said his goal was “to reinforce, and support the staff at all levels to create some stability and positive feelings within the organization, to pursue our mission, and operate the organization well,” he said. “My focus really was on the staff and restoring a positive sense of feeling and mission among the staff, and have Catholic Charities operating in as effective and efficient way that I could so that when a new executive director comes in, that person would find Catholic Charities staff functioning well, our finances operating responsibly with a strong sense of mission throughout the organization.”
He believes those goals have been accomplished, and now that he will continue in the role, he has mapped out a new set of goals.
“My goals have to do with Catholic identity,” he said. “I’ve been challenged by a number of people to answer the questions, ‘What is Catholic about Catholic Charities? How does it differ from any other social service agency?’”
He said he plans to assess the operations of the agency and its practices, and hopes to develop a plan to enhance the Catholic identity of Catholic Charities and the work it carries out reflecting “Jesus Christ and his work and focus on the poor.”
He also wants to find ways to better work with the 211 parishes of the archdiocese.
“I understand we already have many positive relationships with parishes, and we hope to maintain and enhance those,” he said, adding he hopes to advance the mission of Catholic Charities “to fulfill our mission of serving the poor and advancing the mission of justice.”
That sense of working for justice and serving the disadvantaged has driven Brennan throughout his life. He grew up with a call to service seeing the example of his parents who were both in public service: his mother a nurse at St. Anthony Hospital in the central city of Milwaukee and his father a 28-year Milwaukee police officer at a time “when police officers were more about community service,” he described.
“Faith in my family, our Catholic faith, Irish ethnicity, drove my concern for justice for the poor, and still does,” he said.
On July 1, Brennan took on another role – president-elect of the Wisconsin State Bar. His one-year president-elect term concludes July 1, 2011 when he assumes the role of president.
For Brennan, it’s just another opportunity to advocate for the poor and disadvantaged.
“It puts me in an excellent position to advocate for justice, to advocate for the poor and to challenge my fellow lawyers to do the same,” he said, citing the opportunities for them to provide pro-bono legal services to the poor.
Brennan noted he is likely the first attorney from a non-profit organization and first legal aid lawyer to be elected to any state bar presidency. “
I’m plowing new ground, but I have been very active in the state bar and with the delivery of legal services and justice to people of modest means,” he said.
“Over the years, Jim Brennan has dedicated his life to helping the poor, the elderly, people with disabilities, children and the immigrant population in our midst. He is an avid proponent of social justice and will carry that banner throughout his work as leader of the State Bar of Wisconsin and most certainly, for Catholic Charities,” said Archbishop Listecki in a statement announcing Brennan as the new Catholic Charities executive director.
But even as executive director of Catholic Charities and president of the State Bar, Brennan plans to spend one or two nights a week with the homeless and hungry of Milwaukee — as he has done for the last three decades.
Every Wednesday evening, and sometimes on Thursdays, he visits the meal sites or shelters and word quickly travels through the hall, “The lawyer is here.”
For the next several hours, he’ll help people with legal issues such as applications for Social Security.
And in each case, Brennan says it’s important that he affirms the dignity of the person before him.
“That person is made in the image of God, and I uphold the dignity of the person through the entire process as a lawyer to advocate for a person’s rights,” he said, adding he receives a sense of satisfaction when the outcomes are positive and he’s made a difference in an individual’s life.
While he does this pro-bono work outside Catholic Charities working hours, Brennan noted, “It’s another way for me to act on the Catholic Charities mission of advocating for the poor and for social justice.”
Brennan and his wife of 37 years, Ruth, are residents of Bay View and belong to the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. Ruth, a public health nurse, is the health care coordinator for Milwaukee Public Schools Head Start program. They are parents to two daughters: Meaghan Brennan, deputy budget director for the State of Delaware; and Caitlin Brennan, who is completing her doctorate in microbiology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
In 2009, Catholic Charities served nearly 15,000 people, an increase of 25 percent over the previous year. The agency has a staff of about 120 people, according to Brennan, and its ministries include adult care, family and children and social justice. Specifically, the organization offers services to older adults, behavioral health counseling services, adoption and pregnancy support, legal services for immigrants, refugee resettlement and social justice education and services.