Msgr. Neil A. Connolly, pastor of St. Mary’s parish on Grand Street in Lower Manhattan for nearly three decades, died April 1. He was 83.
He was pastor of St. Mary’s, 1985-2013, and the Bronx parishes of Our Lady of Victory, 1981-1985, and St. Athanasius, 1975-1981, where he was parochial vicar, 1958-1975. He also served as episcopal vicar of the South Bronx, 1976-1985.
Cardinal Dolan celebrated the Funeral Mass April 5 at St. Mary’s Church. The homilist was Msgr. Walter A. Birkle, a seminary classmate of Msgr. Connolly’s. Father Richard Adams, who had served with Msgr. Connolly when both were parochial vicars at St. Athanasius, delivered a reflection in Spanish.
“His virtues were considerable, most notably his extraordinary capacity to inspire,” Msgr. Birkle said. “I so envied Neil’s ability to lift up our hearts by readily speaking in English and in Spanish, all in one breath, it seemed.”
“I could not have had a better friend—and neither could anyone else who knew him. He was a friend to all people,” Msgr. Birkle told CNY. At the seminary, “he was the master of games” and “of a lot of things,” Msgr. Birkle said. “If you asked me or the classmates who’s the icon in the class, he is. He is the model. We really lost someone that we love so much.”
Msgr. Birkle said he would miss “the person, the character, the inspiration.”
“He was superlative,” Msgr. Birkle said. “He was just a good, good, good person.”
While vicar for the South Bronx, then-Father Connolly was one of the founders and chairman of South Bronx People for Change and a member of Interfaith Community Concerns.
The South Bronx People for Change was begun in the 1970s to address problems of blighted neighborhoods, including abandoned buildings, rampant fires, drug abuse, subway station safety and price gouging in local food markets.
Also as vicar of the South Bronx, he worked with clergy, religious and laity in the community to promote organizing and to encourage economic development.
He received the 2005 Sister Margaret Cafferty Development of People Award for his decades of work to empower the people of New York City’s impoverished neighborhoods. The national award was conferred by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic bishops.
As pastor of St. Mary’s parish, he was a founder of Lower Manhattan Together, a coalition supported by CCHD grants addressing neighborhood issues such as housing, education, traffic and parks.
Throughout his priesthood, Msgr. Connolly compassionately advocated for the rights of people entrusted to his care. That advocacy was achieved in numerous capacities: He helped tenants get heat and services in poorly maintained buildings, organized residents to address housing and safety issues and developed long-term leadership among groups of local people.
He was one of the first two recipients bestowed the Buen Pastor Award of the National Association of Hispanic Priests.
In a Feb. 4, 2008 article published in America magazine, Msgr. Connolly said, “It is important to hear the sighs of the people, and you can’t do that if you are not touched by them. I want to be colored by what happens and by where I live.”
Born in Woodside, Queens, he attended Our Lady of Good Counsel School, Manhattan; Cathedral College; St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie; and the Catholic University of Puerto Rico.
He was ordained in 1958 and named a monsignor in 1995.
He is survived by three brothers: Denis, William and Patrick, and many nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by a sister, Anne Marie.
Interment was at Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne.