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A lifetime of service is ending for Lynn deacon John Bresnahan Jr.

Deacon John M. Bresnahan Jr. is retiring after 37 years, 15 of it at Holy Family Church. (Owen O'Rourke)

LYNN — John M. Bresnahan Jr.’s lifelong love of politics, faith, and writing began at his parents’ dining room table.

Speaking your mind and agreeing to disagree were the order of the day in the Lynn native’s home.

“My mother was a Yankee Protestant Republican and my dad was an Irish-Catholic Democrat. I grew up with parents who were different from each other but who loved each other,” Bresnahan said.

Now 75 and living with his wife, Dolores, in a little corner of East Lynn off Great Woods Road, Bresnahan taught for 35 years in the Lynn public schools, served as Ward 5 City Councilor and has performed the duties of a Roman Catholic deacon since his ordination in 1980, spending the past 15 years at Holy Family Church.

Parishioners who attend the Bessom Street church honored Bresnahan last Saturday night with a party that included group shots of Bresnahan’s friends and family members wearing fake beards in honor of his signature whiskers.

Parkinson’s Disease has weakened Bresnahan’s voice, compromising his ability to deliver sermons, but he continues serving in the deacon’s role “as all-around helper” at Holy Family, a church with strong Italian-American roots.

“I can still shake hands at Christmas and people answer back, ‘Buon Natale,'” he said, repeating the Italian words for Merry Christmas.

Fertile ground for faith and political discussion in his family home prompted Bresnahan to consider the priesthood or politics as life pursuits. His father, John M. Bresnahan Sr., tried to dampen his interest in politics but Bresnahan said he was thrilled when John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960.

“I almost cried with joy knowing the door of the White House was open to Catholics,” he said.

He was Lynn campaign coordinator in 1964 for state Attorney General Edward W. Brooke’s reelection campaign. Brooke, an African American who would go on to serve in the U.S. Senate, was running for office in a year when civil rights dominated national debate.

His father served on the Lynn School Committee for 20 years, but it was the older Bresnahan’s interest in education, not politics, that prompted Bresnahan to pursue a teaching degree after graduating from English High School in 1960. His first job was in the former Cobbet Junior High School where he wasn’t afraid to challenge the status quo.

When he was asked to list students by race on a school form, Bresnahan refused and countered by asking how multiracial students should be listed.

“They gave me the worst possible answer: ‘Ask the kid what race they want to be identified with,'” he said.

His students’ eyes tended to glaze over during Bresnahan’s history and social studies lectures so he turned to storytelling to keep his kids’ attention. He read Reader’s Digest accounts of real-life emergencies and rescues with an emphasis on the everyday heroics of ordinary people.

Turning teaching into storytelling turned Bresnahan into a writer. Yankee Magazine in 1967 published his account of the 1770 Boston Massacre and his local letters to the editor raised his profile in Lynn.

“People were saying, ‘Why don’t you run for office?'” he said.

Bresnahan resisted the call but in 1971 he waded into Lynn politics with a run for Ward 5 City Councilor. Americans had drawn battle lines over national concerns, including the Vietnam War, and politically-active Lynn residents were drawing their own lines.

The single term he served in 1972-1973 saw Bresnahan join the resistance against plowing a highway connector through Lynn Woods. In 1973, he sponsored a resolution calling for then-President Richard M. Nixon’s impeachment.

He finished up his teaching career as an advocate for vocational education and called for spending more public money on teaching trades.

Married for 53 years, John and Dolores Bresnahan divided their post-retirement years between far-flung travel, with Russia and the Arctic Circle on their past itineraries, and enjoying time with their children, Lauretta, David, Amy and Luke and eight grandchildren.

He spent three years training for the deaconship and discovered that faith work gave him a chance to be outspoken in his sermons and draw on his teaching skills to counsel people.

“I like the feeling of helping people,” he said.

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