A priest readily described a gentle man and a gentleman, Msgr. John F. Lawler died at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston on Aug. 18. He had celebrated his 91st birthday on March 23.
The oldest of eight children of the late Patrick and Catherine (Smith) Lawler, he grew up in Boston’s Jamaica Plain section and was a son of St. Thomas Aquinas parish there. He attended both the parish grammar and high school, and Boston College High School where he went to complete language requirements before his acceptance to Boston College. On graduation from BC he crossed Commonwealth Avenue to St. John Seminary to begin preparation for the priesthood, a vocation he had sensed from early years.
Archbishop Richard Cushing ordained him to the priesthood at Holy Cross Cathedral on June 29, 1945. Among the surviving members of that class are Boston priests Fathers Ed Cowhig and John Kelly and Springfield’s retired Bishop Joseph Maguire, one time auxiliary of the archdiocese.
During the 63 years of his priestly ministry Msgr. Lawler had four assignments. He was an assistant at St. Joseph, Needham following ordination to 1951 and then at Our Lady of Lourdes, Brockton from 1951-1954.
In 1954 he began an almost 19-year tenure as chaplain at the now shuttered Boston State Hospital in the Hub’s Mattapan section. The state hospitals of the commonwealth had been designed to care for the mentally ill and with his customary concern for everyone in the archdiocese, Archbishop Cushing arranged to have priests appointed as chaplains, many of them living in residences near or attached to the chapel on the hospital’s grounds. Msgr. Lawler, however, lived in residence at St. Joseph in the city’s Hyde Park section.
When on March 13, 1967, Pope Paul VI named him to the papal household as a Domestic Prelate (now called prelate of honor) he was naturally pleased -- but as he reflected in later life “it was because Cradinal Cushing wanted the mentally ill to know they were important that I was named.”
In April 1972 Archbishop Medeiros named Msgr. Lawler pastor of the historic St. George Parish in Framingham’s Saxonville section. For the next 23 years, Msgr. Lawler served the rapidly growing area with great kindness and customary gentleness.
In July 1995, Cardinal Bernard Law granted him senior priest retirement status. While his health permitted he served at St. Bartholomew Parish in Needham and lived at Carmel Terrace in Framingham from 1997-1998, when he moved into Regina Cleri.
Bishop Robert Hennessey was the principal celebrant of Msgr. Lawler’s funeral Mass at St. George Church, Framingham on Aug. 22, among the concelebrants joining him were archdiocesan vicar general, Father Richard Erikson; Regina Cleri Director, Msgr. James Tierney and contemporaries and friends of Msgr. Lawler: Fathers William McConnell, William Pearsall and Charles Sheehy. Father Francis O’Brien, current pastor at the Framingham parish, served as the homilist.
Msgr. Lawler’s immediate survivors are brothers William, Framingham; Robert, Roslindale; Richard, Foxborough; and sisters Mary Radley, Yarmouth and Ann Sweeney, Walpole. Following the funeral Mass Msgr. Lawler was buried in St. Joseph Cemetery, West Roxbury.