Monsignor Robert Brown, Norwich diocese chancellor, dies at 74

In this May 27, 2016 Day file photo, The Rev. Monsignor Robert L. Brown, left, and St. Bernard School Headmaster Donald Macrino, go over their notes before leading the class of 2016 in for the school's fifty-eighth commencement exercises. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
In this May 27, 2016 Day file photo, The Rev. Monsignor Robert L. Brown, left, and St. Bernard School Headmaster Donald Macrino, go over their notes before leading the class of 2016 in for the school's fifty-eighth commencement exercises. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

If church were the theater, Monsignor Robert L. Brown would have been a director.

Brown, the chancellor of the Norwich Diocese for decades who died suddenly on Saturday, took each Mass he oversaw as an opportunity to put on a "dignified and elegant" show of his commitment to the Catholic Church, St. Bernard School headmaster Donald Macrino said.

Brown told the participants where to stand, when to walk and who should be holding what.

"And he did it without any notes," Macrino said. "He knew the rituals so well. He felt that his contract was to maintain that, and make sure it went smoothly."

Brown, 74, had just finished Saturday's Mass at Sacred Heart, a small parish in Norwichtown, when he was taken to the hospital.

He was scheduled to serve as the master of ceremonies at Sunday's Red, White and Blue Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, one of several themed masses throughout the year that Brown rigorously and enthusiastically planned.

"He had both a wonderful sense of being an active member of the faith, and of the larger community of faith in southeastern Connecticut," said Michael Strammiello, a diocese spokesman. "He also had a very strong patriotic sense about him."

Brown had been a priest for nearly 50 years, Strammiello said. He was also a state police chaplain, an anti-abortion activist and a member of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal service organization. He remembered everybody's name.

"He was very much a priest," Strammiello said. "He wasn't a business person in priest's clothing. He was genuinely a pastoral person."

For people who came to Brown for help with their problems or in mourning, he had a common phrase: "We live in hope."

"I think our faith teaches us to be hopeful,"  Strammiello said. "It's easy to lose hope that everything is going to turn out right for all of us, but he stood up to the challenge of that."

Brown was known outside of the diocese as one of the "God squad," along with Rev. Dr. Benjamin Watts of Shiloh Baptist Church in New London and Rabbi Carl Astor of Congregation Beth El in New London, who together delivered an annual interfaith service starting in 1991.

At one service in 2000, Brown, a Middletown native, spoke about peace. He called it a gift from God that people sometimes treat cheaply.

"Peace does not come from a barrel of a gun," he said. "It doesn't come from hostility or from the absence of these things. Peace is a product of our hearts on fire with love."

"He was very quiet, but very certain of what he was saying," said Stephen Percy, who organized the annual summer services for the Pequot Chapel in New London. "His intellect allowed him to contribute greatly to the discussion. He adapted to whatever the subject matter was being discussed."

As chancellor, overseeing the administrative aspects of the diocese's operations, Brown was tireless, Strammiello said.

"He was a powerhouse, I've never seen anything like it," he said. "His work was his life, to a large degree. "(His) was the last light out, every night."

Macrino said he knew Brown as a parishioner at St. Joseph in New London for decades before Macrino was appointed as the headmaster of St. Bernard School in Montville.

"When I took the post at St. Bernard, he was one of the first to congratulate me," Macrino said Sunday. "I can remember him calling me up — he always began with, 'God bless you, Don.' He was a man of constant goodness and encouragement."

Brown, like Macrino, was the son of a car salesman, and the two men often talked about new models. Brown kept his own car impeccably clean, bringing it to the car wash twice a month.

"The genuine goodness of this man can't be overstated," Macrino said. "It wasn't gratuitous -- you felt it."

m.shanahan@theday.com

In this July 27, 2013 Day file photo, Monsignor Robert L. Brown, chancellor of the Norwich Diocese, second from right, gives instructions to the deacons of the Norwich Diocese about what they will do and where they will need to be during the candle ceremony for the rededication of the Cathedral of St. Patrick in Norwich and the 60th anniversary of the Norwich Diocese.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
In this July 27, 2013 Day file photo, Monsignor Robert L. Brown, chancellor of the Norwich Diocese, second from right, gives instructions to the deacons of the Norwich Diocese about what they will do and where they will need to be during the candle ceremony for the rededication of the Cathedral of St. Patrick in Norwich and the 60th anniversary of the Norwich Diocese. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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