Rockville Centre priest's life has been challenging - but never boring

Fr. Andy Connolly, second from right, with his foster son, Louie Krieger, in red, Krieger's wife, and Julio Ramirez, who is from the pueblo where Connolly worked in the Dominican Republic

Fr. Andrew Connolly
Age:
84
Who he is: Retired priest in the diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y.
Lives in: Copiague, N.Y.

Sr. Camille: Andy, you first came to my attention about a quarter-century ago through the admiration of a mutual friend, our late, beloved Sr. Marie Kennedy, who, like you, lived on Long Island in the Rockville Centre diocese. Please describe some of the circumstances and issues that brought you together.

Connolly: In 1963, while serving at St. Agnes Cathedral, I was sent to The Catholic University of America to study education. There was no discussion about this assignment. I received a letter from the bishop, and off I went in September 1963. In 1965, I learned that I was going to be principal of Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville, N.Y. I think it was sometime that same year that I learned that Dominican Sr. Catherine William and Mercy Sr. Marie Kennedy would serve as assistant principals. While the school was still under construction, we met for the first time. I had a good relationship with both of them, I think, but the relationship with Marie Kennedy was deeper and more personal. It lasted for many years until her death.

Marie had a broad set of interests. In particular, besides education, she was very interested in social issues -- race, poverty -- which very much defined my life.

Were any of those concerns learned in the home in which you were raised?

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My mother died when I was 10 years old. My father was a rather taciturn man, but he had strong political opinions, decidedly Democratic. As I grew older, we argued about most social issues. He had some deep prejudices, against Jews, blacks and Italians, especially. I grew up with those same prejudices until I was able to see their foolishness through my own personal experience. On the other hand, my father was very generous and kind to everyone and always ready to help, without considering his prejudices.

Please describe your family.

I was born July 30, 1930, the last of three boys. My older brothers are Tom and Pat. My mother died in 1941. My father's sister, our Aunt Helen, came to live with us. She was a marvelous lady; I don't remember ever seeing her angry. She was with us for almost 30 years until her death in 1970.

My brothers and I were blessed with some intelligence; the three of us each won the General Excellence Medal at graduation from Ss. Joachim and Anne School in Queens Village. I have very fond memories of and deep gratitude for the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who taught us. I especially appreciate that I can pick up a new piece of music and sing it immediately; they taught me how.

My brother Tom entered the Jesuits in August 1945, worked in the Philippines before and after ordination, married (poorly) in 1970 and died of cancer in 1980 a very unhappy man. My brother Pat worked in the clothing industry all his life. He married a Jewish widow and died in 2012.

Did you have heroes or role models?

I'm a very independent person and not inclined to look on anyone as a hero or role model. However, there are countless people who I have admired and imitated in some aspects. My brother Pat was a model for me in many ways: his intelligence, love for the outdoors, his political acumen. Probably the person who most influenced my adult life was Dorothy Day.

How did you make that connection?

I first visited the Catholic Worker in June 1945, a month before my 15th birthday. I had found the May 1945 issue of The Catholic Worker in the subway and was profoundly moved by it. My father let me go to New York City's Catholic Worker, and there, I first met Dorothy. We became friends. A month or two after my ordination in 1956, she asked me to bless their new farm on Staten Island. Two priests, Bryan Karvelis and Matt Foley, and I experienced a whole new way to celebrate.

Msgr. Jim Coffey, a philosophy professor at the seminary, sharpened what was already a keen interest in the social teaching of the church and introduced me to many actively involved in works of justice. Another professor, Fr. Tony McDonnell, became a close friend and spiritual director. He, too, had a deep interest in social issues, and both he and Monsignor Coffey helped me and others to understand what liturgy was all about.

What drew you to the priesthood?

I don't remember a time in my life when priesthood was not my goal. God was very real to me, and these guys had connections. As a kid, I met some very good priests. Our pastor, Christian Wilhelm Herchenroder, was a dictator, but a benign dictator. I worked in maintenance at the parish as a young teenager; I counted the collection and did all sorts of odd jobs for the parish and priests. Passionists used to help on Sundays; Father Leopold became a good friend and almost convinced me to enter his community.

My concept of priesthood certainly deepened and expanded over the years and eventually challenged the standard understanding of the priest as a sacristy/sanctuary person. My deepening knowledge of the God of love and mercy convinced me more and more of the value of the priesthood.

We know that the realities we create don't always reflect the dreams that lead us to them. What met your expectations and what did the God of Surprises have to offer you?

Perhaps the first and maybe the biggest surprise for me was the death of my mother. Death became an integral part of my understanding of human life. I experienced its fragility, and this slowly helped to make me realistic about the limitations that are part of the definition of human life and, therefore, of my own life.

From the time I first met Dorothy Day, working with and for the poor and marginalized was part of my dream of my priesthood. When the bishop sent me to the richest community in the United States after I was ordained, it was a powerful blow. Rigid Roman Catholic obedience closed the door to other possibilities, but experience alerted me to the many poor in and near the parish. The discovery enabled me to do the work I loved and also gave me a unique opportunity to open minds and hearts of many wealthy and middle-class people to the realities of poverty and racial injustice.

Was there any particular effect of that connection?

Within a year, together with three couples, we were able to form a unit of the Christian Family Movement. Besides being an arena for helping people to grow in understanding liturgy and Scripture, it advanced their understanding of Catholic social teaching and their commitment to social justice. It was a great help to me, grounding me in the hard realities of family life and the layperson's commitment to God. By the time I left the parish in 1963, CFM was made up of 42 couples, very much involved in the works of social justice.

What happened next?

Being named principal of Holy Trinity High School was not something I desired. I think I gave it my best and actually enjoyed my two years there. The experience brought me into some wonderful friendships both with staff, students and parents, but I soon realized it was, for me, a waste of my priesthood.

Where else did you minister?

I was ordained for the diocese of Brooklyn on June 2, 1956, by Bishop Thomas Molloy. My first assignment was to St. Agnes Church in Rockville Centre, N.Y. This became the cathedral parish, and Walter P. Kellenberg was installed as bishop of the new diocese [after Molloy died in November 1956]. I was master of ceremonies for the cathedral, something I would simply refuse to do today. I had over 300 altar boys.

On the west side of Rockville Centre, I discovered a rather large black community. I began visiting there and became good friends with the black ministers and with some of the residents. The village government had developed an urban renewal program for the area. Its aim was to get rid of as many black families as possible. I was involved in very public battles against the program, as were many people in CFM. I was ordered by the bishop to get out of the battle, and I refused. He did nothing further. I remained chaplain to a group of CFM, had a boys' choir of 60 voices, and I helped teach religion in the high school.

After St. Agnes, the bishop sent me to Catholic University for three years and then to Holy Trinity High School. My talk at the dedication of the school was on education for freedom, based mostly on Jacques Maritain. This was a constant theme of mine. I'm still very proud of the fact that the kids created a nickname for Trinity: "Andy Connolly's Freedom School."

Early in my second year at Trinity, I realized that this position was not meant for me. I wrote to the bishop, and both he and the Priests' Personnel Board responded very positively to my request for parish work or special work in race relations. The bishop sent me to serve as an assistant at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church in Wyandanch in June of 1968.

Wyandanch had the largest concentration of black families on Long Island at that time. Just a few months prior to my assignment, there were riots in Wyandanch, and buildings were burned to the ground. I was determined to work with the black community on the multitude of problems the community faced. I walked the streets, spoke with the people and went to every publicized community meeting.

Together with the director of the Economic Opportunity Center, Bob Washington, I founded the Wyandanch Community Action Committee. What a marvelous experience grew out of that! It's much too lengthy and complex to write about here, but the Wyandanch Day Care Center, the Wyandanch-Wheatley Heights Ambulance Squad, the Wyandanch Public Library, the Wyandanch Senior Citizen Center, the Wyandanch Youth Club and a lot of other efforts were both hard work and a lot of fun.

Together with the New York State Urban Development Corporation, we developed a 125-unit housing project, which was rejected by the Babylon town board. In one very public battle, the school board president called me out of a meeting, brought me to a classroom and pulled a gun on me, telling me to get out of the battle. I did not get out, we won the battle, and I'm still alive.

Did you have strong collaborators?

I worked with some really great people in Wyandanch. I was blessed to have Fr. Bill Brisotti with me for nine years. He was key as we began to have a growing population of Hispanics. We started a Spanish Mass in 1975, one of the first in the diocese.

The Sisters of St. Joseph in Brentwood were very generous to the parish. Sr. Catherine Cecilia worked there for a number of years, aided by Sr. Carol Kenz and Sr. Edward Joseph. Two other Josephites worked at the parish: Srs. Dorothy Marie Schnell and Mary McCarthy. You could not find a better pastoral team anywhere than this group made up of Bill, Dorothy, Mary and me.

We had a fully elected parish council, except for Bill and the sisters. As pastor, I gave the council deciding authority, even if I disagreed with them.

While I was serving as pastor in Wyandanch, we housed several runaway/throwaway teenagers. We were working with an office of the Babylon government. I ended up becoming the legal foster father to Louie Krieger, a 16-year-old. We have maintained a father/son relationship to this day. He is now 52.

What did you do next?

In 1984, I resigned as pastor in Wyandanch and took a six-month sabbatical. I spent four months at Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. It was wonderful to renew and deepen my theological and scriptural knowledge in the company of a bunch of young people (I was 54 years old).

I had hoped to go with Maryknoll to El Salvador, fulfilling a dream from seminary days. Fr. Tom Maloney was working in the diocesan mission in El Cercado, Dominican Republic. The bishop didn't want him working there alone and was ready to bring him home, since no other priest was interested. He asked me if I would be interested, so I spent a month there.

My decision made, I began working in El Cercado in May 1985. While not as poor as nearby Haiti, El Cercado is super poor. The people are all farmers, working land that the U.N. classifies as non-arable. 1990 was a critical year. Tom Maloney was ill and had to return home.

When my alcoholism became evident, I was challenged by Tom and Sr. Jane Reilly, who was working in a neighboring parish. Bishop John McGann called me, and I entered Guest House in Detroit for their three-month rehab program. That was a blessing. The whole experience of recovery has been the deepest spiritual experience of my life.

What did you learn there?

A physical exam at Guest House revealed that the right side of my heart was completely blocked and could not be corrected. The left side of my heart was 80 percent blocked, which meant that I was working with only 10 percent of my heart functioning. I had an angioplasty (without a stent) in April 1990, and the left side of my old heart is keeping me alive.       

I returned to El Cercado in 1991 and served there until June 2002. My time there was interrupted by heart problems in 1993 and 1994 and by some medical problems. I had spinal surgery in 1996. In 2000, a badly diagnosed leg injury kept me on Long Island for two years. I returned to El Cercado in the spring of 2002, but had to return to Long Island in June of that year.

What were you involved on Long Island?

I served as coordinator of Spanish ministry in the town of Brookhaven from June 2002 to June 2005. My hope and plans for that ministry were too ambitious for this old man. Some good things happened, but I was working in nine parishes with a priest who was totally uncooperative. He was a little pope whose chief interest was making a few bucks.

I retired that June. In 2006, I moved to Our Lady of Fatima Church in Manorhaven, where a friend had been assigned as pastor the year before. I worked with the small Spanish community in the parish. When the pastor was removed, I offered to serve as administrator for a year.

I recently moved to an upstairs apartment in my son's house in Copiague. I'm working harder than I have since I served as administrator in 2007-2008. I celebrate weekday Masses several times a month with the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brentwood and the Sisters of St. Dominic in Amityville. I celebrate weekends at Our Lady of the Assumption in Copiague and at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Wyandanch. I serve on a committee that began to look for a way to get input in the selection of the bishop who will succeed Bishop William Murphy this year. It's made up of 10 priests, five religious women and 10 laypeople.

What would you advise a person considering the priesthood today?

It would very much depend on the person. A person of independent mind and heart I'd encourage strongly, but advising that they be alert to the restrictions on freedom within the current structure of priesthood. I would not encourage a person who is more malleable and submissive; I don't believe such a person could genuinely serve the church in the future.

How do you pray best?

The Scriptures are my best source of contact with God and the source of judgment on my own life and the life of the world.

What is your image of God?

I sense myself, the world around me, the whole Earth, the entire universe as being simply surrounded and penetrated by God. I sense God interacting with intelligence and love with the tiniest bit of creation and with all of creation as a whole.

How do you believe the church best serves its people?

The church begins to serve its people by respecting the God-given dignity of each and every person in the world and the dignity that is rooted in the baptism of church members. This dignity requires the active participation of all people at every level of the life of the church, especially in the decision-making processes. The church requires a dialogue among its members, recognizing that each person is both speaker and listener.

How do its people best serve the church?

People serve the church by recognizing the great dignity that is theirs and exercising their responsibilities for the daily life of the church.

Can you describe a priest with whom you have served or whom you have known who inspires you?

I would be remiss if I did not mention Fr. Bill Brisotti in this context. He and I worked together for nine years and remain good friends. I do not hesitate to name him the best priest in the diocese of Rockville Centre. His own simple life and commitment to the poor and marginalized are exceptional.

You are known for your courageous encounters with those promoting injustice. Would you say something about your efforts to expose and correct them?

One of the really interesting experiences was in El Cercado when I publicly exposed the lies of the mayor in a small newspaper I published. It actually won over the mayor. He and I became friends and began to work together on many problems in the pueblo.

What gives you joy?

At a very deep level, there is a permanent joy that nothing can disturb. It is the result of having passed through several joyless, challenging situations. It is simply the joy of knowing the constant presence of a compassionate and merciful and forgiving God. At another level, but related, is the joy of having been used by God to change peoples' lives for the better. This constantly amazes me. At still another level, good friends give me a very deep joy. Lastly, beautiful music is a joy that nourishes the deeper joys.

What saddens you?

Injustice anywhere. Oppression in any form saddens me. Sad people sadden me. That moves me to try to change that sadness into joy.

What else would you like us to know?

One important experience of my life occurred from 1977 to 1980. In a period of four months, my father, two brothers and I were hospitalized at different times. Things went gradually but ineluctably downhill. Downhill also went my faith in a good God and, finally, my faith in God. In the spring of 1980, the deaths of my father, an aunt and my older brother brought an end to the disasters. In July 1980, I broke my leg and was laid up for a couple of months. This gave me time and space to pray and reflect on the previous three years. I slowly came to see how God was always present to me, especially in the person of friends. My lack of faith became a much deeper faith than previously. Ten years later, that faith was strengthened through the miracle of recovery from my alcoholism.

Anything else?

Camille, I have been blessed with a wonderful life. Boredom is a word people have to define for me; I've never experienced it. It's been full of challenges. Most of them I think I've confronted. I lost some battles, but won most, I think. Many friends continue to urge me to write a book, but I'm too undisciplined.

Andy, thanks so much for sharing your story with us. Don't give up that book!

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.

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