Obituary: Msgr. John P. McDonough, retired pastor, former chief of Air Force Chaplains

"He was the best of the best," Father Robert M. Blaney, current secretary for ministerial personnel said of his first pastor and close friend, Msgr. John P. McDonough. The former chief of United States Air Force Chaplains and retired pastor of St. Agnes, Middleton, and of St. John the Baptist, Peabody, died on Nov. 17 at Regina Cleri Residence in Boston.

He was born in Boston's Dorchester section on May 24, 1928, the eldest son of the late John and Delia (Lydon) McDonough. The family lived on Hendry Street and were parishioners of the then largest parish in the archdiocese, St. Peter on "Bowdoin Street near Ronan Park," as the natives would tell you.

He attended the parish elementary school. His teachers were the Sisters of Charity of Halifax, whom he always cheered as great teachers and great women. He grew to have the same awe for other women religious, especially the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master.

For high school, he went to the South End, then the home of Boston College High School. Even before he graduated from high school, he had decided to pursue a vocation to the priesthood and entered the archdiocesan seminaries at Brighton. An extremely popular seminarian, he earned the nickname "Masch" (pronounced "maysch") because he was, even then, tall, thin, and svelte.

Following his ordination on Jan. 10, 1952, by Archbishop Richard Cushing, he was assigned as an assistant at St. Bridget Parish in Abington. In 1953, he was assigned as an assistant at St. Mary of the Assumption, Dracut, and to the same position in 1957 at Our Lady of Grace, Chelsea. He remained there until June, 1963.

He always saw himself as a parish priest and a pastor. In his first assignment, he carried out the regular duties of an assistant. Among them was a list of regular First Friday Communion calls that included William Spellman, the 96-year-old father of New York's Francis Cardinal Spellman. John told the story that when "Spelly" came home for Christmas, he stopped at the rectory to chat and to thank him for his care of his father. He also slipped him an envelope, which on opening John found an amount equal to his annual salary! The cardinal was well known for his prodigious memory for people and names and when John entered the Air Force Chaplain Corps, he realized the truth of this. Whenever the cardinal, in his role as "military vicar," visited the troops, he always sought out priest chaplains and if John was anywhere in the vicinity, even on another base, he was "summoned" to be present with the cardinal.

In June 1963, John was granted permission to serve in the Air Force Chaplains corps. The lend-lease assignment would last 28 years and in that time he would circle the globe.

His assignments started in the warm climes of Florida, as chaplain at Eglin AFB; the next posting was, to say the least different, at Thule AB in Greenland -- a major shift in geography and in climate! Between 1966 and 1985, he served across the globe: Charleston AB, So. Car.; Hakata, Japan; George AFB, California; Wiesbaden AB and Han AB, both in West Germany.

He returned to the United States as a student at the Air Force staff command college at Maxwell, AFB, Alabama. Upon completion of studies there, he was appointed as chaplain at Andrews AFB, Md., and then to a stint at nearby Bolling, AFB, Washington, D.C. He returned to Europe as command chaplain at Ramstein, and in1984, he was back to US soil as command chaplain at Langley AFB, Va.

Along the way in these posts, he was promoted regularly and, in 1985, he was named deputy chief of Air Force chaplain and named a "one star" or brigadier general; when he was named chief of chaplain in 1988, he was promoted to major general or "two star."

He retired from active service in the Air Force on Dec. 1, 1991, and returned to service in the archdiocese.

He never lost his love for and respect for the men and women of the Air Force, nor of the other branches of the US military services. And the respect and admiration of those chaplains who served in the Air Force Corps with John remains legendary. He had the quality of leadership that seems natural to some but only assumed by others. He once told Father Blaney that "if I have to remind you I am the pastor, then I am no longer the pastor." It would apply to all the other responsibilities that John had over the course of his long priestly life. He was that leader whom the chaplains knew was leading by service more than by title.

Speaking of titles, he had lots of them. But he always referred to himself and wanted to be called "Father John" or "Father McDonough." Whenever I met him, called him, or saw him, I always called him Monsignor. It inevitably brought a smile. He was careful enough not to urge me to do otherwise as he knew I would just emphasize it all the more. I know he was thinking -- "incorrigible," but was too kind to say it. He was named a Prelate of Honor by Pope St. John Paul II on April 1, 1989; he never said it but one thinks he liked the coincidence of the date of appointment! In April 1998, he was named a protonotary apostolic, also by Pope St. John Paul II. He told me that there was only one photo of him bedecked in his monsignoral cassock. He showed it to me, but never let it out of his sight. I said "I want that for your obituary" and he said, "You'll never get it." And I didn't!

As much as he loved the Air Force, he loved this archdiocese. He especially loved our priests. "Bob, the archdiocese was very good to me in releasing me to the Air Force. The best way I can thank it is to take care of our priests."

He was pastor of two parishes after returning to Boston. First at St. John the Baptist, Peabody (1992 to 2000). The impression he made there, especially on those priests who were assigned with him, was lasting. He gained immense popularity among the parishioners both in Peabody and then in St. Agnes, Middleton (2001-2003).

Bishop Richard Lennon, then the apostolic administrator of the archdiocese, granted him senior priest/retirement status in June 2003. He retired to his own residence in Winthrop, but was available and willing to help in parishes.

In 2008, at the age of 80, he came out of retirement to serve on an interim basis in Cardinal O'Malley's cabinet as secretary for Faith Formation and Evangelization. He was a familiar figure at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in Braintree and he took time to meet the staff and visit the offices. He liked to meet people, where they worked, and to get to know them on a very personal level.

In 2009, he was named the priest liaison for the Office of Professional Standards and Oversight. For almost three years, he helped priests in trying and difficult circumstances, bringing a pastor's heart to often heart rending and grave situations.

He had a unique ability to bring calm to roiled waters. He also enjoyed a special quality not easily named but he was confident without being arrogant; and he could inspire confidence in you, even on your worst day. He was a man of deep faith and he could help you on your journey of faith; he let you know he was a fellow pilgrim. You could lean on him without any doubt that he was a fellow human being. You could talk, seriously or humorously, to him and you always knew you were in the presence of a priest.

In 2012, he ended that responsibility and resumed his more than well-earned senior priest status. He continued to live in his Winthrop residence until 2014 when he retired to Regina Cleri Residence.

He was reluctant to make the move but he knew it was in his best interest. He assumed the responsibility as priest chaplain at Regina Cleri in 2014 and remained so until just a few months prior to his death there on Nov. 17, 2021. Among his duties there was to assist brother priests -- some his seminary contemporaries and others years younger -- in adjusting to life at Regina Cleri as well as the sometimes difficult transition to retirement.

In the last several months, his health began to deteriorate noticeably. He became more and more reliant on the staff and personnel and especially the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master at Regina Cleri.

He received a steady stream of visitors, family, priests, and friends. Cardinal Spellman's present day successor, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA came; as did Cardinal O'Malley, who celebrated the Anointing of the Sick for John.

Over the years, he had made many friends. He seemed always to go back to two of his Boston classmates, the late Boston Auxiliary Bishop John McNamara and the late Father Robert Bergeron. Bishop McNamara served as chief of naval chaplains while Father Bergeron had been a fellow Air Force chaplain.

Msgr. McDonough's funeral Mass was celebrated on Dec. 2 at St. Elizabeth Church, Milton. The parish to which the family had moved from Dorchester many years ago and had become the McDonough's "new home parish."

Cardinal Seán O'Malley was the principal celebrant of the Mass. Joining him as concelebrants were Archbishop Broglio; North Regional Bishop Mark O'Connell; Boston's two former auxiliary bishops John Dooher and Arthur Kennedy; and Bishop Richard Higgins, former auxiliary of the Archdiocese for the Military Service USA and himself a retired Air Force chaplain.

Some 70 priests were concelebrants, including Father Robert M. Blaney, who was the homilist; Msgr. McDonough's nephew and namesake, Father John P. McDonough of Morgantown, West Va.; Boston priests and Air Force chaplains Fathers Richard Erikson (ret); Robert Monagle, and Thomas Foley; several priests from Regina Cleri, including Msgr. William M. Helmick and Father John Nichols; Father Brian Kiely, the rector of Pope St. John XXIII Seminary, Weston; Msgr. Kevin J. O'Leary, rector of the metropolitan cathedral of the Holy Cross; and Father Robert Kickham, master of ceremonies of His Eminence, the Cardinal.

Msgr. McDonough's immediate survivors include his brother Thomas, North Tazewell, Va.; Helen, Plymouth; and Barbara Allen, Duxbury. Following the funeral Mass, Msgr. McDonough was buried with full military honors at Milton Cemetery, Milton.

For the convenience of our readers, we provide the links for the funeral Mass and the homily here.

The Mass was live streamed and can be viewed here

Father Blaney's excellent homily can be seen and heard here