by Chris Canniff
Joseph R. Nolan, who passed away in April of this year at the age of 87, was recently honored by the Archdiocese of Boston at their annual Red Mass for the Catholic Lawyer’s Guild of Boston, a group which Nolan himself helped revive several years ago and of which he served as president for 25 years.
A native of Mattapan, Nolan attended Boston College High School, graduating in 1942, before serving in the US Navy in the Pacific theater during World War II. Upon his return to the United States, he attended Boston College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 1950. He then went on to attend Boston College Law School.
After graduating with his law degree in 1954, Nolan went into private practice. He later served as an assistant district attorney for Suffolk County and general counsel for the state Lottery Commission.
In 1965, Nolan entered the field of academia, teaching at Suffolk University Law School from that time until 2011. During his more than 40-year tenure as a professor, he co-authored five law books and edited two editions of “Black’s Law Dictionary.”
In 1980, Governor Edward J. King appointed Nolan to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court as an Associate Justice. Before this, he had served as a special justice at Brighton District Court and as an associate justice of the Superior Court.
While serving on the court, Justice Nolan often found himself writing the dissenting opinion for a court that was predominantly liberal. His 1986 dissent in a right-to-die case evinces his solid Catholic formation under the Jesuits of Boston College.
“I can think of nothing more degrading to the human person than the balance which the court struck today in favor of death and against life,” he wrote. “It is but another triumph for the forces of secular humanism . . . which have now succeeded in imposing their anti-life principles at both ends of life’s spectrum.”
In 1994, he was the sole dissenting justice in a case regarding the involvement of an Irish-American gay and lesbian group in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in South Boston. Parade organizers had disallowed the group’s participation on religious grounds. When the ensuing legal battle wound up in the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, only Nolan supported the principle of religious liberty by siding with the parade organizers. The case ultimately went on to the United States Supreme Court, which overturned the SJC’s ruling and ruled in favor of Nolan’s stance.
Following his retirement from the court in the 1990s, Nolan continued teaching at Suffolk Law. He was also a daily communicant, frequently attending the noon weekday Mass in St. Mary’s Chapel on the BC campus until as recently as last semester. On Sunday’s he preferred to attend the Extraordinary Form Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End.
Nolan, of Belmont, left behind his wife of 66 years, 7 children, 24 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.
Cardinal Seán O’Malley released a statement of prayer and remorse upon learning of Nolan’s passing.
“His work was guided by core beliefs he held true to as a committed and faithful Catholic,” said O’Malley. “He balanced his secular life with his prayerful commitment to Christ and the Church. Providing a strong prolife presence in our community, Justice Nolan was a daily communicant who received the Eucharist with great devotion. He spoke regularly about the importance of understanding ‘sin and grace’ and basic morals.”
Bishop Robert Deeley, who presided at the Red Mass earlier this month, also knew Justice Nolan from his involvement with the Catholic Lawyer’s Guild. In his homily, he said, “There is an empty seat in our cathedral and an empty place in our hearts.”