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Donna M. Morrissey, who headed PR for the Boston Archdiocese and the American Red Cross, dies at 51 of COVID-19

Donna M. Morrissey
Donna M. MorrisseyTom Herde/Globe Staff/File

When 26 people were shot and killed at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in 2012, Donna M. Morrissey went to the scene the following morning for the American Red Cross to speak with victims’ families and relief workers — conversations all the more grief-stricken because 20 young children were among the dead.

“She remembered everything,” said Tara Hughes, leader of the American Red Cross family assistance center that day, who saw Ms. Morrissey, as communications director, field questions in interview after interview with local reporters and national news outlets.

“Donna was fierce in all the good ways — a fierce advocate for people in need, a fierce friend to many,” Hughes added. “She always said she wanted to capture what it was like to be in the position of someone who was impacted directly, and then she would tell their story with grace and compassion. She was amazing in that way.”

Ms. Morrissey, who formerly held one of the most difficult public relations jobs in the country as spokeswoman for the Boston Archdiocese during the clergy sex abuse scandal that swiftly dominated the news, died of COVID-19 Friday at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She was 51 and lived in Newton.

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Fielding calls at home from reporters around the clock — sometimes at 3 a.m. — she often was the sole public face of the archdiocese in the months following January 2002, when the Globe began publishing reports about abusive priests. As awareness about the abuse spread, reporting by news organizations in other countries showed that the crisis was worldwide.

Day after day she faced rows of media microphones, platoons of cameras and reporters, and angry families of victims who had been children when they were abused by priests.

The work took a personal toll.

“It’s been very challenging,” she said in a March 2003 speech to the Boston chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. “There’s times when I go home and … I cry and sob.”

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And her responsibilities extended beyond work.

“During that time, I was the caretaker for my aunt, who died of bone cancer,” she told the Globe in a November 2003 interview. “So I was spending 15-hour-long days with incredible pressure and then spending the night with her. There were times when I felt on the brink. I dug deep for courage and relied on the support of my family and friends.”

In May of that year, when she left her job as cabinet secretary for public relations and communications at the archdiocese, she had been the only woman who was not a nun to serve in the cabinets of Cardinal Bernard Law and of Bishop Richard G. Lennon, interim leader of the archdiocese after Law resigned in December 2002.

“I have some scars, and I’ve definitely changed,” she told the Globe after she had started working for the American Red Cross, “but I’ve learned a lot.”

Most recently, Ms. Morrissey was director of national partnerships for American Red Cross Biomedical Services. Her previous Red Cross duties included working with national marketing, raising awareness, and forging partnerships with businesses and organizations across the nation to support blood drives.

“My family brought me up to not only rely on my faith in God, but also to give back to the community,” she said in an interview posted on YouTube when Laboure College honored her as one of the recipients of the 2017 Massachusetts Care Awards. “It was profound in our house and it was an expectation.”

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She was deployed more than a dozen times to major disasters, including nationally in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, and locally after the Boston Marathon bombings.

Elizabeth Penniman, interim chief public affairs officer at the American Red Cross National Headquarters, said in an e-mail that Ms. Morrissey was “a dedicated, kind and talented humanitarian.”

In a statement, the archdiocese said that “Donna was a person strong in her faith, kind and committed to helping people in times of need. She will be missed. We pray for the repose of her soul and ask God’s blessing for the comfort of her family and friends.”

The fourth of seven siblings, and the oldest daughter, Donna Maria Morrissey was born in Boston in 1968 and grew up in West Roxbury and Chestnut Hill.

Her father, William P. Morrissey, died last September, was a prominent banker, civic activist, and fund-raiser for the Catholic Church. Her mother, Donna Cosgrove Morrissey, had been a schoolteacher before raising the children.

Ms. Morrissey graduated from Newton North High School, received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Boston College, and began working in the newsrooms of WBZ-TV and WCVB-TV.

Taking a job at Regan Communications Group, she rose to become vice president, working with clients such as Legal Sea Foods and Boston Harbor Hotel.

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“Donna was smart and sweet and her heart was boundless. She only spent 51 short years on this Earth, but didn’t waste a second of it,” said George Regan, the firm’s chairman, who added: “I will miss my dear friend with the heart of gold.”

The archdiocese hired her in early 2001, and as the abuse scandal unfolded, those outside the cardinal’s inner circle were left to wonder about the conversations that shaped the church’s public statements.

“I always spoke the truth, and if a time had come that I wasn’t able to do that, I would have left then,” she told the Globe in November 2003, speaking about those private meetings.

Of her conversations with the cardinal, she added: “If he asked me a question I gave him an answer, whether I thought he wanted to hear it or not.”

With the American Red Cross, Ms. Morrissey “never hesitated to do whatever she could to help those in need during their most devastating moments, whether that was a hand to hold or a shoulder to cry on,” Penniman said.

Ms. Morrissey “was very proud of that work she did,” said her sister Johanna of Brookline. “She found that to be a calling.”

In many ways, Ms. Morrissey’s role in her family helped prepare her for those years with the American Red Cross, comforting those in need across the country.

“She was the go-to person in the family. She was a mentor,” Johanna said. “Not only was she like a second mother to me, she was a best friend. There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for her family.”

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In addition to her mother, Donna, and her sister Johanna, Ms. Morrissey leaves three brothers, Francis of Milton, William Jr. of La Jolla, Calif., and John of Hingham; and two other sisters, Meghan of Brighton and Caitlin of Brookline.

A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Thursday in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.

Ms. Morrissey, who also had a home in Brewster, initially was convalescing on Cape Cod and had thought she was recovering from a coronavirus diagnosis before she was admitted to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

“She was so brave and so comforting during this time. Our whole family’s heart is broken,” Johanna said.

“When she heard she was going to be on a ventilator, instead of getting upset, she was comforting us,” Johanna added. “She said, ‘I have no regrets. I want to survive, I want to live, but I’ve been very blessed.’ ”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.