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Rev. Daniel Kennedy, at 34; new priest served in Winthrop

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley ordained Daniel J. Kennedy last year in Boston. The cardinal will say his funeral Mass today. Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley ordained Daniel J. Kennedy last year in Boston. The cardinal will say his funeral Mass today. (gregory l. tracy/the pilot/file 2007)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / February 1, 2008

On the last day of his life, the Rev. Daniel J. Kennedy said goodbye to his first church.

Father Kennedy told parishioners at St. John the Evangelist in Winthrop on Sunday that his first eight months as a priest would always belong to them. "He said he would never forget us," cantor Tina-Marie Talvi said.

That night in his brother's living room in Connecticut, Father Kennedy suffered a fatal heart attack after performing a baptism for a friend in Fairfield hours earlier. He was 34.

The athletic priest, who ran nine marathons and was training to run the 2008 Boston Marathon, died of an undiagnosed heart defect, said his father, Daniel, of Needham.

"He spent his last eight months happy as a lark," his father said. "He loved being a priest. He could have done so much."

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, who ordained Father Kennedy along with six other priests on May 26, will conduct his funeral Mass today.

"Father Dan Kennedy's death is a tragic loss for the local church," O'Malley said in a written statement. "However, his brief but enthusiastic embracing of his vocation has enriched our faith community and drawn people closer to God."

Father Kennedy was the parochial vicar at St. John and had been assigned to St. Brigid and Gate of Heaven parishes in South Boston beginning this month.

At St. John, he was remembered as a priest who instantly connected with young people. He started a youth Mass that drew about 60 youngsters every Sunday night. He used the occasions to explain the meaning behind each portion of the Mass. "He had such a calling," said Erin Flaherty, St. John parish's youth minister. "He could make that connection."

Before Mass, Father Kennedy often walked the aisles chatting with people. He spotted a high school student cradling a basketball in the pew one day, Flaherty recalled.

"Don't you know you're not supposed to have a basketball in church," the priest told the girl and took the ball. He skillfully balanced the ball on one finger and twirled it in the air. "What priest does that?" Flaherty asked.

Father Kennedy grew up in Westfield and Needham. He graduated from Catholic Memorial High School in West Roxbury and Providence College.

He loved to play sports, especially hockey. "He spent most of his time in the penalty box," his father recalled. "I used to say he would have scored more goals if he hadn't spent so much time in the box."

After college, he worked for a consulting company and later for Cabot Corp. in Billerica, but he felt the pull of the priesthood.

"The thought was with him as a young boy," said his mother, Alice (Haggerty) Kennedy. "He didn't accept the calling for a while, but the thought was always with him."

Father Kennedy wanted to be a role model for young men, she said. "He wanted them to know that regular young men were in the seminary, men who like the Red Sox and the Patriots," she said. "He knew that was going to be his strong suit, getting good men back into the seminary."

He wrote about his first weeks as a priest in a posting featured in July as part of the cardinal's weekly blog.

"I am a priest so anxious to serve this parish, as well as a left fielder looking for a softball team!" he wrote.

He called celebrating Mass a "humbling experience" and added that he was so worried about doing things properly that others told him to "loosen up a little bit."

Father Kennedy was also a lieutenant in the US Navy Chaplain Corps. In December, he spent two weeks aboard the USS Nimitz.

He told Catholics in Winthrop that his favorite image of Christ was as a shepherd.

"Each time I hear or sing 'Like A Shepherd' my heart will be full of love for the wonderful priest who touched all of us," Talvi said.

In addition to his parents, Father Kennedy leaves his sisters Kathleen, Patricia, and Anne Marie, all of Needham; and a brother, John F. of Simsbury, Conn.

A funeral Mass will be held at 11 a.m. today in St. Joseph Church in Needham. Burial will be tomorrow at 11 a.m. in St. Mary's Cemetery in Westfield.

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