Bishop John A. Dooher: A life trusting in God’s providence

Bishop-elect John A. Dooher has always trusted in God’s providence to guide his ministry. And he is determined to continue relying on God in his new role as auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Boston -- a role he never imagined he would be called to fulfill.

In early October, when the bishop received a late-night phone call from Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, asking him to go to the cathedral, he had no idea what to expect.

Nevertheless, he immediately set out to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

“It was about 10 p.m. when I got there,” he recalled. Cardinal O’Malley met him with a “simple statement that said ‘The Holy Father has appointed you auxiliary bishop of Boston.’”

His reaction?

“You just kind of gulp and start going through reasons why he should have picked someone else,” he said.

That evening, he didn’t sleep a wink.

“I truly didn’t have a clue about this,” he said.

Armed with an optimism he credits to his mother, who always taught her children, “not to be afraid to say, ‘yes, let’s try it,’” Bishop-elect Dooher began looking forward to his new role as bishop of the south region of the archdiocese.

A few days later during a family dinner, the bishop shared the news of his appointment.

“There was great excitement, confusion, laughter, some tears, and you know, reminiscing about family and all things that give us our particular uniqueness as a family,” he recalled.

Bishop-elect John Anthony Dooher was born May 3, 1943 in Dorchester. He is the second son of Anthony and Brigid (Patsy) Dooher, both Irish-born Catholics who met and married after emigrating to Massachusetts.

Throughout his childhood, he attended St. Peter Parish in Dorchester, which he described as a “secure carefree environment for children to grow up in with tons of children your own age running around the streets.”

He attended his parish school where he was taught by the Sisters of Charity of Halifax.

Although he has two brothers, Francis Xavier and Terence, and a sister, Kathleen, the bishop described his family as “a little bit of an accordion” because of his particular closeness to his first cousins, Maura, Jack and Joan. Their mother, Bishop-elect Dooher’s aunt, died at an early age orphaning the cousins, then ages 7, 5 and 2.

“We consider ourselves complete when all seven of us are together,” he said.

However, the Doohers did not formally adopt the children, said the bishop-elect.

“My mother was physically unable to take everybody in because just some months before she was not expected to live,” he recounted. “She had three little boys in diapers...because we were all very close in age, and my mother was very seriously ill at St. Margaret’s Hospital.”

Bishop-elect Dooher explained that the illness was so severe, his mother was not expected to survive.

“So, the Sisters of Charity at the hospital began a novena. Pinned to her dressing gown at the hospital was a relic of Elizabeth Ann Seton and on the ninth day of the novena, it all broke and she survived.”

Because of her seemingly miraculous healing, the bishop-elect’s mother always had a special devotion to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and “anytime anything important happened to one of us growing up, that little relic would wind up in our pocket,” he said with a smile.

Growing up, Bishop-elect Dooher always had a profound respect for the role of the priest and the significance it holds for the faithful.

At the same time, his family instilled in him a desire to serve.

“There was something about that in our clan -- this sense that we’ve been given much... to those who were given much, they should give back.”

That feeling, coupled with a familiarity with priests -- there are a number of priests and religious in his family -- and his own experience as an altar boy at his parish led him to consider a vocation to the priesthood.

“No one ever pushed me” into the priesthood, he said. “It was just something I was drawn to.”

“In my family you were allowed to feel where you were being called,” he continued. “My parents were very proud of me, but they never said, ‘you must’ or ‘you should.’”

Bishop-elect Dooher attended St. John’s Seminary and was ordained to the priesthood in 1969.

The newly-ordained Father Dooher was assigned to St. Francis Xavier Parish in Weymouth, a bustling parish with nearly 3,000 families. He was one of three priests who not only served the parish, but also served as chaplains at South Shore Hospital and the now-closed South Weymouth Naval Air Station.

“I did things in the first two weeks that some of my classmates didn’t get the chance to do for months,” he said.

“I had some of my most profound experiences at the hospital because it was one of the busiest hospitals south of Boston...and one of the major accident centers for the Expressway,” recalled Bishop-elect Dooher. “You saw some very difficult things, but they were great moments to be with people.”

During his five years at St. Francis Xavier, Bishop-elect Dooher developed a great appreciation for the lay people within his parish, particularly those who helped run the “excellent religious education program.”

“It was a great experience for a young man,” he recalled. “I was 26 years old and just raring to go. It was a wonderful time to be there.”

In 1974, five years after his ordination, Bishop-elect Dooher was asked to go to St. Augustine Parish in South Boston. “If I remember correctly,” he recalled, “the quote was ‘Cardinal Medeiros wants someone who’s been happy in his work’ -- and that fit the bill -- ‘who was ordained five years and would be willing to go into the inner city,’” he said.

“I grew up in St. Peter’s Dorchester, in the inner city. My parents were married at St. Augustine, which makes it more interesting, and I was ordained five years and had been very happy,” he said.

For the next 17 years, Bishop-elect Dooher was stationed at St. Augustine Parish.

“St. Augustine’s turned out to be one of the most wonderful experiences anybody could have,” he declared.

“It was a difficult time in the city,” continued the bishop-elect. “It was a painful time for parents, and difficult for priests. Sometimes we were not always in agreement on things, but we kept working together. The Eucharist kept us together. We baptized their children; we buried their parents. We were there for the sacraments and they were there for us.”

Bishop-elect Dooher remembered his days at St. Augustine with fondness.

“One of the things that was special about South Boston is that there was a certain amount of people who were very fragile emotionally and economically, and they could survive there. People would kind of watch out for them there. South Boston was always considered a tough community, but within it wasn’t,” he said.

Father Arthur Calter, who was one of the pastors of St. Augustine during Bishop-elect Dooher’s time there, recalled, “Those were heavy days, very heavy days.”

Today, Father Calter is a senior priest at St. Ann Church in Quincy.

“I always thought he would be a bishop,” Father Calter said. “People have always recognized [Bishop-elect Dooher] as a leader.”

“He’s kind of an amazing guy really,” he continued, calling the bishop-elect “a renaissance man” with an interest in literature and a talent for playing several musical instruments, “as well as an amazing wisdom and compassion for others.”

“He is a great gift to the archdiocese,” Father Calter said. “He loves the Church and he loves people -- and he knows how to speak to people.”

During Bishop-elect Dooher’s years living at St. Augustine Parish, he held a variety of positions within the archdiocese as well. In 1978 he was elected president of the Priest Senate of the archdiocese -- a position he held for four years. Then, in 1982, Cardinal Bernard Law appointed him director of the Office of Spiritual Development, where he worked for nine years.

“The value of staying at St. Augustine’s during that time is that it rooted me in parish life -- which is what it’s all about for me,” Bishop-elect Dooher said. “The parish has been the center of my life even when I was doing other work.”

During his time as director of the Office of Spiritual Development, Bishop-elect Dooher and his staff -- composed mainly of lay people -- ran renewal programs, retreats, evenings of prayer and other programs for parishes throughout the archdiocese.

“It was a wonderful thing -- you got a sense of the Church throughout the archdiocese,” he said. “It was a very interesting and enriching experience to be with all of these different people with all their different experiences and their dedication to the Church.”

According to Bishop-elect Dooher, after nine years in the office, “it was time for a new director with a new vision.”

He then volunteered to head two struggling South Boston parishes, St. Vincent de Paul and Sts. Peter and Paul -- neither of which was self-sustaining -- and shepherd them through their difficulties.

“Something in me said that maybe someone who has a knowledge of the community could go through what they would have to go through,” he said. “Something had to happen and it might be easier if a priest from the community went down there as administrator. And that’s what happened.”

Over the course of the next four years, Bishop-elect Dooher met with the parishioners from both parishes. Ultimately, the two parishes were merged, and the church of Sts. Peter and Paul was closed.

“It was done with great grace, with tears. We had a real ceremonial closing,” he said.

After five years, Bishop-elect Dooher was asked to become pastor at St. Mary Church in Dedham. Together with Father Christopher Hickey, his parochial vicar, they began Life Teen “and it was like setting off a keg of dynamite. It just exploded here,” he said.

Bishop-elect Dooher credits much of the success of the program to both his associates -- Father Hickey and Father Matt Williams, as well as to the lay people who give of their time to work with the youth.

“If there’s one thing that I wanted for St. Mary’s and young people, it was that St. Mary’s would be a safe place and that it would feel like home. I think that has happened because of the dedication of all the people who have worked with this program.”

“I get credit for the work that other people are doing,” he added. “I hope I have been supportive, and I am in the background doing other things so that the program works.”

“These past 10 years have been a roller coaster ride I wouldn’t have missed for anything,” he said with a chuckle.

Loretta Flynn, a longtime parishioner at St. Mary Parish, said, “We are very excited for him, but very sad for our parish. Bishop-elect Dooher will bring a lot to the office of bishop. He will elevate the position of the priesthood -- he will be a bishop of the people.”

“I’ve had 37 years of phenomenal experiences, but most of them connected to parish life. The parish life is where it really happens,” stressed Bishop-elect Dooher, adding that although he is sure his new role will be difficult at times, “it will also bring a lot of joy.”

“But that’s the same about living any life with meaning, isn’t it?” he mused. “Everybody’s life that has meaning has moments of joy and of sorrows. You try to do it with as much faith as you can, and then hope to have a little fun in the meantime.”

“I’ll have to keep an instrument handy,” he said, smiling.