Joseph C. Brannigan, a prominent Portland Democrat who served nearly three decades in the Maine Legislature and was a tireless advocate for the state’s mentally ill and homeless, died Saturday night at his home on Concord Street after a long battle with cancer.

Brannigan, a former Roman Catholic priest, was 83.

For 34 years, Brannigan was executive director of the Portland-based Shalom House, which provides housing and programs for people with severe mental illness or who are homeless. The organization, founded in 1972, grew from one house – now called Brannigan House on High Street – to 27 properties throughout southern Maine. Brannigan retired from Shalom House in 2009, and was succeeded by its current executive director, Mary Haynes-Rodgers.

“I’ve been very fortunate to follow in the footsteps of one of the legacies in Maine for advocating for people with mental illness,” Haynes-Rodgers said Sunday night. “For years, this was Joe Brannigan’s organization. He had a belief, a vision and he made it all come true.”

Haynes-Rodgers said Shalom House is now the largest provider of residential services for people with mental illness in the state.

Brannigan was born in Brunswick but grew up in Topsham, according to an oral history that was compiled by Bates College in Lewiston.

He told a Bates College interviewer that he pursued the priesthood because he wanted to be of service to other people. So he attended Saint John’s Seminary in Boston, where he was ordained a Catholic priest. Upon his return to Maine, his first parish was Holy Cross in South Portland.

Later in life, Brannigan completed a master’s degree program in counseling education from the University of Southern Maine and became a social worker.

“He was an ordained priest. I think he brought many of those skills to Shalom House and the Legislature,” said Portland Mayor Michael Brennan.

Brennan, who served with Brannigan in the Legislature, said Brannigan was a skilled politician and advocate who fought hard for the rights of people with mental illness.

“His contributions to that community are legendary,” Brennan said. “When you think about what he did at Shalom House, thousands of families with mental illness have benefited from what he was able to accomplish.”

MORAL COMPASS

Former state Sen. Ethan Strimling of Portland served six years in the State House with Brannigan. Strimling called him the moral compass of the Legislature.

“He was an incredibly generous human being who was always on the right side,” Strimling said. “The way that he voted was always the most courageous and the right way to vote.”

“He made sure that our state’s most vulnerable population was being represented,” Strimling added.

Sens. Justin Alfond and Anne Haskell, both Portland Democrats, issued a statement Sunday on Brannigan’s passing.

“Joe Brannigan touched thousands of lives through his work and commitment at the Shalom House and his public service in the Legislature,” said Alfond, the Senate minority leader.

“Joe’s sharp wit made him a tremendous leader and we will miss him,” added Alfond, who served with Brannigan in the 124th and 125th Legislatures.

Brannigan served 28 years in the Legislature, including seven terms in the House and seven terms in the Senate.

Alfond said Brannigan served on 10 committees, most notably the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, as well as the Health and Human Services, Insurance and Financial Services, and State and Local Government committees.

“Joe’s compassion was legendary. He was a tireless advocate and he meant so much to all of us,” said Haskell, who has represented Brannigan’s former district since 2012, when he decided not to seek re-election. “Joe was more than a mentor. He was a great friend and a neighbor. I will miss him and his quiet way with words.”

During his time in the Legislature, Brannigan led the way on issues such as access to mental health services, expanding health insurance to low-income Mainers, bail reform, and strengthening Maine’s automobile “lemon law.”

Phil Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, also served in the Legislature with Brannigan. He said he will remember his ability to inject humor into tense, heated legislative debates.

‘A TRUE STATESMAN’

“Joe Brannigan was a true statesman, bringing determination, compassion and dignity to public life,” Bartlett said in a statement. “Joe had great respect for our public institutions and was equally committed to changing policies and practices to best meet the needs of our state. We will miss him greatly.”

Haskell said Brannigan will be best remembered for his work as an advocate for the downtrodden, especially those with mental illness.

“He left his mark. He cut a very wide swath as a human being in this world,” Haskell said.

Haskell said Brannigan’s wife, Claire, and their son, Luke, are not planning to hold a traditional funeral service. Instead, they are working on plans for a memorial service, but the date and place have yet to be determined.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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