Msgr. Russell Collins, Boston’s longest ordained priest

Msgr. Russell J. Collins Pilot file photo

When Bishop Ralph L. Hayes ordained Russell J. Collins to the priesthood at the Chapel of the Pontifical North American College in Rome on Dec. 8, 1937 clouds were looming over Europe. Pius XI was pope, Franklin Roosevelt was finishing the first year of his second term as president, Joseph Hurley was governor of the Commonwealth and Cardinal William O’Connell was archbishop of Boston, assisted by his only auxiliary Bishop Francis Spellman.

Russell J. Collins, a son of the late Thomas and Ellen (Griffin) Collins, was born in St. Paul, Minn. on June 16, 1911. The family moved to Massachusetts and eventually settled in Scituate. After completing high school, Russell attended Boston College entering with the Class of 1934. The tug of the vocation to the priesthood brought his across the street to St. John’s Seminary where he completed his philosophical studies.

Cardinal O’Connell sent him to Rome for theological studies where he resided at the Pontifical North American College. During his student days at Rome, Russell Collins witnessed an ominous historic event, the meeting to seal a deal between Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The Feurher had come to the Eternal City to meet Il Duce -- at that point his only ally.

In the summer of 1938 Father Collins returned to the United States and over the next three years served in a series of three rapid assignments: assistant at St. Bridget, Framingham (1938-1939); Chaplain, Academy of the Assumption, Wellesley (1939-1940) and assistant at St. Thomas Aquinas, Nahant (1940-1941).

In 1941 he was assigned double teaching duties at St. Clement Hall of St. John’s Seminary and at St. Sebastian School, at the latter as a teacher of Latin. In 1944 he was assigned to pursue graduate studies in philosophy at the Catholic University of American in Washington, DC. He was awarded a doctorate in 1947.

He returned to the archdiocese and served as an assistant at St. Joseph Parish in Somerville before he was appointed to the faculty of St. John’s Seminary. For almost two decades his pulpit would be the classroom. Msgr. James Tierney, presently director of Regina Cleri Residence, where Msgr. Collins died on June 3, said “He was one of the most highly respected professors at the seminary. He was widely known for his human kindness.”

From another generation of priests and former students, Father James O’Leary, pastor of St. Camillus Parish in Arlington said, “We liked him. He was a good teacher and a gentleman. We called him ‘Cookie’ because he had to move between buildings to teach his classes and he would inevitably stop in the kitchen and grab a cookie to munch on between classes.”

On April 14, 1961 Blessed John XXIII named Father Collins to the papal household when he appointed him a domestic prelate (now a prelate of honor) with the title of right reverend monsignor (now reverend monsignor).

His almost two decades of seminary service came with his return to parish life in 1965 when he was named to St. Joseph Parish, Roxbury first as administrator and then as pastor; he was also named administrator of St. Philip Parish in Roxbury in 1965. During his brief assignment at Roxbury he continued to mentor and encourage a number of younger priests, many his former students, who had taken up the challenge of ministry in rapidly changing Boston parishes.

In 1968, Cardinal Richard Cushing named him pastor of St. Athansaius Parish, Reading which at the time was only seven years old. Msgr. Collins would bring his priestly and human qualities to help shape and build the parish, not a structure but a people. According to those who worked with him, among them a series of associates and many of his former seminary students, he did so with kindness and simplicity.

Perhaps the building of parish life during Msgr. Collins’ service in Reading was best stated by Sister Jean Delaney, OP whom he had brought to the parish team as pastoral associate. In a Pilot article in 1997, well after Msgr. Collins’ retirement, Sister Jean wrote of her initial steps into parish ministry and how warm and welcoming Msgr. Collins was, how encouraging he was for her and how he helped to integrate her into the parish, not just ministry, but to the whole parish.

Once again his warmth, encouragement and calm leadership developed a vibrant community -- this one, St. Athanasius Parish.

In December 1987, Msgr. Collins set aside the mantle of pastor and retired with great grace to Regina Cleri Residence, Boston. Interestingly many of his former students were now reunited with their professor. Father Thomas Keane, said “We had become quite friendly recently and I told him ‘Russ, I used to fall asleep in your class.’ To which he replied cryptically, ‘I thought so.’”

Msgr. Collins died quietly in his sleep on June 3. He had been at dinner the evening prior and had as usual been involved in conversation, storytelling and banter with brother priests.

Another of his former students, Bishop John P. Boles was the principal celebrant of the funeral Mass at St. Athanasius Church on June 7. Father Francis Conroy was the homilist and among the concelebrants were Msgrs. Michael Groden and James Tierney; Fathers Robert Butler, Ronald Calhoun, Richard Erikson, John Grimes and James McCune.

Msgr. Collins had no immediate survivors and he was buried in Holyhood Cemetery, Brookline.

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