A Priest’s Legacy: Blessing His Puerto Rican Flock, and Organizing It

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A report by David Gonzalez for the New York Times.

Soft light shone upon the body of the Rev. Neil Connolly, which lay in repose under the dome of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A procession of mourners — nuns, priests, family and friends — made their way up the aisle, hugging one another as they approached his open coffin, stopped and prayed, then gently touched his pristine robe as a final goodbye.

Father Neil, as he preferred to be known even though he was a monsignor, spent 28 years leading St. Mary’s parish until he left in 2013. He died in his sleep on April 1 at the priests’ retirement home in the Bronx. Perhaps it was destiny that he drew his last breath in the borough where he had spent some 25 years after his ordination at St. Athanasius parish. He was 83.

In both communities, Father Neil rallied his parishioners to confront their fears — and often landlords and politicians — and lift up their community from poverty, poor housing and ill health. He did it by encouraging them to lead, rather than defer to him. It was a trait he shared with fellow priests who came of age after the Second Vatican Council, pursuing a ministry that was equally at home in the streets organizing residents as it was in the sanctuary blessing them.

“What I am today is because of Father Neil,” said Angel Diaz, a former pastoral assistant at St. Mary’s who worked closely with him on community organizing. “He taught me how to understand social justice, to put the church into action. Staying within the four walls of the church was not enough. We had to go out into the community to help people understand the gospel.”

Born in Queens to a bus driver and a homemaker, Father Neil was the second of five children. The family moved to Yorkville on the Upper East Side, and he eventually went to seminary and was ordained in 1958. At that time, the Archdiocese of New York understood how Puerto Ricans were remaking the church, going from attending small basement Masses to filling the main sanctuary. Like many priests of his generation, he was sent to Puerto Rico to learn Spanish.

“Once he got a little fluency in Spanish, they sent him to parishes in the hills to say Mass and hear confession,” said his older brother, Denis. “He said he loved the people. He loved the idea of being a priest in a place where they might not have had a priest in a while.”

It was also where Father Neil began to understand the role of the laity in parish life. Upon being assigned to St. Athanasius in Hunts Point, he started to address social issues among young people, then helped to found South Bronx People for Change, a community group that tackled the horrific social conditions brought about by abandonment and arson.

At one point, he had enough sources among the police and firefighters — many of whom had gone to Catholic school — to get a decent idea of who was behind the wave of fires. But as he said on a 2013 panel on organizing, city officials were not interested.

He felt the reason was that the area was being targeted for more industry, even if it was also home to thousands of people. Yet, to remind residents that they were not alone, he would celebrate Mass at the community group’s storefront, and on holidays would go caroling to the neighborhood firehouse, which welcomed him with a modest spread of food. Such was the trust of Father Neil that firefighters rushing to an alarm once told him to make himself at home and close the door when he and the carolers were done.

He left St. Athanasius — reluctantly — in 1985 to become pastor at St. Mary’s, where the neighborhood faced similar challenges. As in the Bronx, his ministry included the laity and took on issues of affordable housing at a time when politicians like Sheldon Silver, the state Assembly speaker, who was later convicted on corruption charges, foiled any such attempt, fearing it would erode his base among Jewish and white voters.

In contrast to Father Neil’s victories in the South Bronx, however, blocks of the Lower East Side that had been cleared for urban renewal in the 1960s eventually became the site of retail businesses and upscale housing.

Father Neil left St. Mary’s in 2013, celebrating a final Mass for a standing-room-only crowd. And though he slowly cut back on his commitments, he continued to inspire others. Even so, his death felt like the end of an era, when activist priests energized by the reforms of Vatican II engaged the community, walking and working alongside them.

“There is a new generation of bishops and cardinals who have some of the spirit and positive traditions that Neil embodied,” said Mike Gecan, a co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the national organizing group to which St. Mary’s belonged until Father Neil departed. “The question is, Can they find clergy who share that? Where it does live is among laypeople. I’m not discouraged at all because the lay talent is tremendous.”

At the wake on Tuesday, Angel Diaz returned to his old parish for a final goodbye. He had left soon after his friend and mentor was reassigned. And while his faith is resolute, he has yet to find another parish like the one led by Father Neil.

“I just go from parish to parish,” he said. “I haven’t found another spiritual home. I pray to God I will. But I am full of the richness I got from Father Neil.”

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