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Spotlight Report

  Brian McGrory  

Church loses the last word

5/14/2002

Edward Breen didn't get as far as he did in his 92 years by leaving the details to others, so in the end, in his dying days, he summoned his only daughter to his bedside and told her just how he wanted to go.

He sent her to the cleaners with his best shirt not once, but twice. He picked out his burial suit and adorned it with a matching tie. He asked her to get his good shoes shined, then told her to tuck his favorite socks inside.

Oh, yes, at the funeral, he wanted his daughter, Nancy, to deliver the eulogy, just as she had for her mother four years before. And at the end of the service, he asked that ''Danny Boy'' be sung to the gathered crowd.

They were the simple requests of an unfailingly dignified man, someone who, just two nights before he died, told Nancy, ''You're the second-best thing that ever happened to me.'' After that, Nancy thought to herself, ''There's no one who could stop me from following through on his wishes.''

It ends up, though, that someone tried - and hard. The Roman Catholic Church, in the form of a priest at her father's Lynnfield parish, tried to block Nancy Breen Shields at every turn.

You see, the archdiocese that looked the other way from pedophilia and statutory rape, that coddled predatory priests and scorned their victims, that played fast and loose with the law, that archdiocese is cracking down on teary mourners during their time of greatest need.

No more, Cardinal Law has decided, should priests allow family members to deliver eulogies any longer than a passing thought. No more should the dying have any say in their passing. Funerals, church officials say, are not about the deceased.

Indeed, readers of this space might recall how Law himself forbade Joe Moakley from having two eulogists at his funeral last year, igniting a private, deathbed battle that anguished Moakley right to the end.

Now it was the Breens' turn. Standing in a Lynnfield funeral home the night before her father's burial, Nancy was told by a parish priest that her eulogy should be kept to less than two minutes - if she insisted on delivering one at all.

''He told me, `You know, everybody there will already know what you'll be trying to say,''' she said. ''He used the word `overkill.' I said, `It's important to me, Father, and my own father asked me to do it.'''

Then she was told that ''Danny Boy'' couldn't be played because, in the priest's word, it wasn't ''liturgical.'' A question for that priest: Is it liturgical when the cardinal speaks from the altar week after week about his handling of the latest priest to be carted off to jail in handcuffs?

After much badgering, the priest said ''Danny Boy'' could be performed if liturgical words were substituted, and the regular verses could then be sung as people filed out of the church.

And finally, he rejected the family's request that a relative, Brendan Lohan, recite the Irish Prayer in the brogue that Edward Breen liked so much.

But no ordinary people, the Breens. Instead of giving in, they plotted a strategy, and when Nancy walked to the altar for the eulogy, Lohan accompanied her.

She delivered an eloquent speech - in which she described a slightly built, nattily dressed father who seemed to have the entire world in the palm of his confident hand - that went on far longer than two minutes. The mourners were laughing and crying too hard to care. Immediately after, when Lohan commandeered the podium and read the ''Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard,'' the sobbing could be heard a mile away.

At the end of the service, with the priest following the casket down the aisle and the substituted lyrics of ''Danny Boy'' filling the church, the mourners stood still and waited for the real words. When they were sung, everyone filed out in victory.

''My father wanted everything to be as it was,'' Nancy said. ''If it's right or wrong, moral or immoral, I know I did the right thing.''

It's too bad the cardinal can't say the same these days.

Brian McGrory can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 5/14/2002.
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