Bishop Thomas Connolly, retired bishop of Baker, Ore., dies at 92

Bishop Thomas Connolly (CNS/Catholic Sentinel)

Beaverton, Ore. — Bishop Thomas J. Connolly, longtime spiritual leader of diocese of Baker, Ore., died Friday at age 92. He had lived at Maryville Nursing Home since 2011.

Over the years, Connolly took to horseback to help ranchers bring cattle to winter pasture. He drove between 30,000 and 35,000 miles per year in his spread-out diocese in eastern Oregon.

"Give it all you've got," the bishop said of priesthood in 2007. "By its essential nature, priesthood is a marvelous vocation. God is good and so are the people."

A funeral Mass was set for 11 a.m. May 1 at St. Francis de Sales Cathedral in Baker.

"Bishop Connolly was a Nevada native who came to Eastern Oregon and brought with him a sense of love and affection for rural America," said Fr. Tom Faucher, a priest of the Boise, Idaho, diocese who worked on loan with Connolly for three years as Baker judicial vicar and acting vicar general until the bishop's retirement.

"He was a magnificently warm and loving bishop who grew into the job because he was willing to listen to his priests and people, and helped create a church that was vibrant even though it was spread out over two-thirds of the state of Oregon in small, rural communities," said Faucher, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Boise.  

Connolly was born and raised in Tonopah, Nev., and attended public grade school. His second home was St. Patrick Church in Tonopah, where he was baptized, received first Communion, was confirmed and eventually was ordained a priest.

He received seminary education at St. Joseph College and St. Patrick Seminary in the San Francisco archdiocese and was ordained by Bishop Thomas Gorman of Reno, Nev., in April 1947.

He served as an assistant pastor, a teacher and chaplain for the Serra Club, a group that promotes vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

In 1949, he was enrolled at The Catholic University of America in Washington, where he obtained a license in canon law.

He attended the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome from 1951 to 1952 to earn a doctorate in canon law. In 1952, he returned to the Reno diocese.

He served as assistant pastor and pastor at parishes in Reno and Elko. In 1968, he was named pastor of St. Theresa Parish in the state capital, Carson City.

In addition to being the spiritual leader in the parishes he served, Connolly was not afraid to turn to manual labor when necessary as he sometimes took up a hammer and saw to assist with repairs. He oversaw building of a new church and rectory at a parish in Elko, Nev., as well as a mission church.

In Reno, his efforts resulted in the construction of a church, school, rectory and convent for St. Albert the Great Parish and the student center at the University of Nevada.

During his decades in Nevada, Connolly chaired the Reno Diocese Building Commission, moderated a Catholic women's group, moderated the Italian Catholic Federation, directed the Cursillo movement and served as state chaplain of the Knights of Columbus.

In 1971, at age 49, Connolly was appointed as bishop of Baker. He was the first native of the Reno diocese actively serving in the diocese to be appointed a bishop.

Among his proudest accomplishments in the Baker diocese was the DeSales Education Program designed to help with faith formation for adults. It was used in more than 7,000 parishes in the United States, as well as overseas. He also valued an annual three-day youth rally in the diocese.

He regularly testified on behalf of poor and low-income people at the Oregon Legislature and started a program that helped Hispanic men prepare for the permanent diaconate.

The worst part about being a bishop, he said, was balancing justice and charity when handling personnel.

After retirement, Connolly led retreats around the region.

[NCR West Coast correspondent Dan Morris-Young contributed to this story.]

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