A Quiet Faith Shaped Menino’s Life, Private and Public

November 3, 2014

Not long ago, Thomas M. Menino called a close friend, Sister Jeanne Gribaudo.

“I need a pair of rosary beads blessed by the pope,” he told her.

Gribaudo happened to have some. She brought them to her ailing friend, the former mayor. He never told Gribaudo why he wanted them, but she thinks she knows.

“You mark my words — he was in having his treatments and there were [other patients] there, and the pope or something came up and he wanted to give them rosary beads,” she said. “Absolutely guaranteed.”

Such a gesture would have been typical of the mayor, quintessential steward of the neighborhoods, master giver of small gifts. But it would have also been a gesture Menino understood on a deeper level, as a Catholic.

On Monday, the life of Boston’s longest-serving mayor will be celebrated during a funeral Mass at Most Precious Blood Church, the Hyde Park parish where he was baptized.

Menino was not the sort of religious man who put his faith on display. He rarely spoke about God or Jesus. He was certainly no saint, and he occasionally butted heads with the Roman Catholic Church and disagreed with some church teachings.

But Menino’s faith in God was profound, Gribaudo said, a powerful and perhaps underappreciated force driving his work as mayor, his attention to poor neighborhoods, his care for the marginalized.

“There is a wonderful line at the end of ‘Les Miserables’ . . . ‘To love another person is to see the face of God,’ ” she said. “That is really what Tom Menino saw in his job, in his work with all the different citizens of this city. He saw the face of God.”

Menino’s political career was built on the simple act of showing up, and his religious life was no different. He attended the 7:30 a.m. Mass every Sunday at his parish, St. John Chrysostom in West Roxbury, smaller and folksier than some of the neighboring parishes. Afterward, he and his wife, Angela, would go for breakfast with a large group from the church, sometimes accompanied by the Meninos’ children and grandchildren.

At the church’s annual bazaar, Angela Menino was a fixture in the church kitchen, and the mayor always found something that would bring people in the door — a special appearance of the Red Sox American League Championship trophy, for example.

“The Meninos are definitely a part of the fabric of this parish family,” said the Rev. John J. Connolly Jr., pastor of St. John Chrysostom and scheduled to be the main celebrant at Menino’s funeral Mass.

The mayor kept rosary beads blessed by earlier popes strung from his bedposts, Gribaudo said, and he said prayers every night before sleep. He was devoted to St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, eventually wearing to tatters a book of prayers to St. Joseph that Gribaudo gave him.

“He always wanted to be a great father and grandfather, and St. Joseph was the patron saint of fathers,” the nun said.

Menino’s faith remained steadfast, even in those moments when he found himself in conflict with the church. A decision by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston in 2005 to abruptly shutter Our Lady of the Presentation School in Brighton two days before the end of the school year infuriated Menino, who invited the school to hold its graduation at Faneuil Hall instead.

Later that year, he confronted protests from conservative Catholics when Catholic Charities Greater Boston honored him, an event Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley declined to attend because of Menino’s support for abortion rights and gay marriage.

“What moves me most about being a Christian is what Jesus taught us about being religious,” Menino said in his speech that night. “He did not give priority to piety. He didn’t make holiness the big thing. And he did not tell us to go around talking up God, either.”

Menino and O’Malley patched things up and eventually developed a strong relationship. Together, they collaborated with a community group, the Presentation School Foundation, which bought the school building and turned it into a community center.

Kevin Carragee, a board member of the foundation, remembers the speech Menino gave when O’Malley came to Oak Square to celebrate the sale.

“He said his faith was about forgiveness, about redemption, about the future, not the past,” he said.

Gribaudo, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph order, got to know Menino when he was City Council president. She started bugging him to let her use Boston public school gyms for nighttime youth basketball games she ran to keep kids out of trouble during the early 1990s youth violence.

Menino dubbed her Sister Relentless, and when he became mayor, he hired her as an adviser on youth issues. She remained a close confidante.

“When I saw him a week ago Friday,’’ she said, “he just said to me, ‘Pray for me, kid.’ ”