St. Athanasius’ former pastor was longtime activist
Monsignor Neil Connolly, who lived to serve the community and believed in making leaders out of the people who lived there, died on April 1. He was 83 years old.
He died in his sleep at the priests’ retirement home in the Bronx.
A priest for nearly 60 years, Connolly’s devotion to each of his parishes and his activism in those communities established deep roots across the city, as well as in Hunts Point and Longwood. At a Mass of the Resurrection last Wednesday, every pew in St. Mary’s Church on the Lower East Side was filled and friends stood in the aisles, listening intently to the words of the main celebrant, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, who was accompanied by about 32 priests at the altar. A crowd at the back of the church became larger and denser, as those paying their respects continued to cram their way in throughout the service.
“I’ve always felt that his belief in God was indistinguishable from his belief in people,” said Harry DiRienzo, president of the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association and a longtime local housing activist. “He didn’t see his religion ending at the walls of the church. They actually only began there.”
Though he spent his last years as a priest in St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church on East 96th Street, Msgr. Connolly first joined St. Athanasius Church as a pastor in 1976 and soon made it his spiritual home, staying there until 1981.
“Anyone who knew him was always impressed because he helped people believe in their own goodness and that together, we could make a difference,” said Marianne Kraft, the principal of St. Athanasius School since 1989. “He was into ‘how can we transform our apathy, our indifference, into a passion where we can work together for political change?’”
Having spent eight weeks in Ponce, Puerto Rico, for a pioneering New York Archdiocesan language-immersion program in Spanish after his ordination at age 24, Connolly, who was Irish-American, quickly adapted to an environment that was predominantly Latino.
Father Louis Gigante, 85, one of the most influential housing activists of his time, a retired priest and a founder of the South East Bronx Community Organization (SEBCO), worked with Connolly at St. Athanasius and considered him a “brother.” Along with their fellow priests, he and Connolly used to meet every night to discuss the parish and its needs.
“We would talk together on how we should preach, on what we should preach,” Gigante said. “You’d be surprised how many other parishes would come and listen to us and work with us and get ideas from us. And Neil was at the center of all that. Father Connolly had a very, very loving way of talking to people and helping people.”
During Connolly’s third year at St. Athanasius, a time when drugs and violence dominated the South Bronx, the parish began a summer program that brought multicultural events to the neighborhood parks in an effort to reclaim those spaces. Soon after, Connolly was asked to oversee a satellite parish on Spofford Avenue and with the help of some 100 devotees, established a new storefront chapel.
Connolly and his fellow priests also worked together to bring about change where racial and socioeconomic tensions were concerned. Along with community members, they complained to officials about heating problems in government housing and when that didn’t work, they organized demonstrations. Together, the priests also showed tenants who were living without heat and hot water how to stand up for themselves. They were there for the community through some of the borough’s toughest times, says Gigante.
Gigante recalled the arson fires of the 1970s that drove residents away and gave historical meaning to the phrase, “the Bronx is burning.” When he thought of the idea to rebuild the Bronx, he said he spoke to his fellow priests.
“We rebuilt an empire,” he said of the low-income homes he and Connolly helped develop. “People are living in great places in the worst neighborhood in America.”
In the late 1970s, Connolly obtained a $100,000 grant from the Campaign for Human Development — the domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic Bishops — and gave control of it to Nelson Rodriguez and the South Bronx People for Change, a program for teaching community organizing. In 1979, he was the host for Pope John Paul II during the Pope’s blessing of the church-sponsored housing site. By this point, Connolly was Episcopal vicar of the South Bronx.
In 1985, Cardinal John O’Connor had Connolly transferred to St. Mary’s Church, where he preached for 28 years and continued to immerse himself in the community. He helped assemble meetings, sponsored petition drives and held rallies for housing in the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area along Delancey Street where there were undeveloped parcels. And he continued to help individuals in need.
Elupina Alcantara, 62, a churchgoer who met Msgr. Connolly at St. Mary’s in 1991 during a wedding, said he helped her reaffirm her faith. Over the years, Msgr. Connolly blessed Alcantara’s new home on Montgomery Street, where she still lives, gave her advice, and helped her through her divorce.
“He was a very special person. I will miss his advice, his smile,” she said in Spanish as she wiped the tears from her face with the back of her hand. “He will always be in my heart.”
“I will never forget his Spanish,” said Blanca Lopez, 68, a churchgoer who knew Connolly for 15 years. “It was so perfect. And his sense of humor. So many people loved him.”
Connolly retired from St. Mary’s Church in 2013 and moved on to St. Francis de Sales on the Upper East Side. In the summer of last year, he moved to the Archdiocesan Community for retired priests in Riverdale.
Though the mood was somber in the church, the voices grew louder towards the end of the Mass. And the congregation clapped even louder when the priests walked down the altar carrying the casket above their shoulders and made their way outside to join the line of cars that were waiting to depart for the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, N.Y.
“This is so typical of Neil!” said Principal Kraft, who attended Connolly’s wake in the church the day prior. “He was just dressed in white alb (a white garment worn by the priest), nothing extraordinary — and that was him. And they had a mariachi band! It was wonderful. It was such celebration and joy.”
Gigante said he had too many fond memories of Connolly to pick just one. Connolly and his brother had plans to visit him in his home in upstate New York in about three weeks. They had been vacationing at Gigante’s guesthouse for at least two weeks every year for the past 20 years, Gigante said. Along with some of their friends, they enjoyed the mountain views, fresh air and some “good cooking.”
“He was my best friend,” said Gigante. “We worked very hard. There were 2,500 to 3,000 people in church every Sunday, but you know — it wasn’t work. It was enjoyment. We were doing God’s work and we were happy doing it. I loved my life. Neil loved it. And Neil was an example for me.”