Priest chosen national ‘distinguished pastor’

St. Brendan School’s Fr. John Unsworth is among first in U.S. to be honored

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EAST PROVIDENCE — “The students know, love and respect him.”

St. Brendan School Principal Joseph Renzulli was referring to the Very Rev. John E. Unsworth, pastor of St. Brendan Church and recent recipient of the National Catholic Education Association’s Distinguished Pastor Award. Father Unsworth is one of the first pastors recognized nationally and was selected from nominees representing the 13 New England dioceses.

“He is a great spiritual leader, great administrator and good friend to the faculty and students,” Renzulli added.

The Distinguished Pastor Award, established in 2007 by the association’s Department of Elementary Schools, recognizes the achievements of pastors selected from nominees representing each of NCEA’s eight administrative districts.

“It is a wonderful recognition of your personal commitment to and effective leadership of Catholic education in the Providence Diocese and at St. Brendan Parish,” wrote Bishop Thomas J. Tobin in a December 26 letter congratulating Father Unsworth. “We are very proud of you and grateful for all the good work you do, particularly on behalf of our Catholic schools.”

Superintendent of Schools Sheila Durante echoed the bishop’s sentiments.

“Father Unsworth is very deserving of this award,” she said. “He has been involved in Catholic education for many years.”

The priest formerly served at St. Mary Church in Pawtucket, where he was an active supporter of the parish school.

Durante recalled that Father Unsworth was instrumental in the creation and implementation of “Lighting New Fires,” a strategic plan created to revitalize Catholic education in the diocese during the 1990s. One of the recommendations of that plan was to reconstitute the Diocesan School Board, on which Father Unsworth subsequently served two terms. Durante added that Father Unsworth has always been very supportive of Catholic schools in parishes where he has served.

“When we received the nomination form for the award, his name just came to mind,” she said.

Father Unsworth noted that he is humbled to be receiving the great honor.

“There are a number of priests who are very supportive of Catholic schools,” he said, adding that he is accepting the award at the NCEA annual conference March 25 in Indianapolis on behalf of all pastors who have a parish school.

“Priests work very hard when they have a school,” Father Unsworth emphasized. “It’s like having a second parish. The school has a different calendar, different issues and oftentimes, many families are not parishioners.”

He noted that students travel from as far as Seekonk, Mass., Bristol and Providence to attend the Riverside school.

“It is important to be present to the children, not to be distant from them,” Father Unsworth said, recalling that every priest that he encountered as a young student attending Sacred Heart School in East Providence contributed in some way to his formation.

“One of the great joys I have is going to visit the lower grades when I am having a bad day,” the priest said. “I sit at the lunch table with them and say, ‘I am having a bad day,’ and they always make me smile.”

The busy pastor, who also serves as chaplain of the East Providence Fire Department and Dean of Deanery II, added that is extremely gratifying to receive a letter or an e-mail from a college student telling him of their achievements and giving credit for that success to St. Brendan School.

Father Unsworth praised Renzulli for being a strong role model and dedicated administrator.

“He is truly an exceptional principal,” Father Unsworth said. “His success reflects on me. We are blessed to have him.”

Renzulli noted that the pastor has a strong daily presence in the 167-pupil school, and regularly conducts retreats and classes for students and faculty. Father Unsworth teaches a 14-week course on moral decision-making to Grade 8 students every year, and the two administrators also present an annual workshop at Providence College for Catholic school teachers seeking to become administrators about the pastor/principal relationship.

In addition, Father Unsworth also teaches an online course in sacramental theology as part of Providence College’s religion certification program for teachers working in Catholic schools. He has served on several subcommittees during the school’s reaccreditation process, and has also served on many diocesan committees and task forces.

Renzulli emphasized that despite his strong presence at the school, Father Unsworth is not a micromanager.

“He is always very supportive as we move forward. He’s always available for us.”

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