Funeral Homily for Rev. Richard A. Donnelly

Note: I preached this homily at the Funeral Mass of my former Pastor, Fr. Richard Donnelly, May 24 at St. Paul Church, Cranston RI.

Funeral Homily — Rev. Richard A. Donnelly

Most Reverend Bishops, my brother priests and deacons, men and women religious, relatives and friends of Fr. Donnelly, members of the Legion of Mary and Catholics for Life, my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Ecce, Sacerdos Magnus, qui in diebus sui placuit Deo. Behold, a great priest, who in his life was pleasing to God; the Church sings in her Liturgy.

It is with a heavy heart that we gather here today, in the Church Father Donnelly was Baptized in, grew up in, celebrated his first Mass in and served as a priest in, to commend to God this great priest, who in his life was pleasing to God, and who in his life touched the lives of so many people.

Richard Anthony Donnelly was born three days before St. Patrick’s Day, March 14, 1936, to Francis and Mildred Donnelly, the youngest of three sons. The Donnelly’s were the model Irish-American Catholic family in a world that has sadly all but vanished. The three Donnelly boys walked a half a mile to St. Paul’s School in the morning, walked home for lunch, then walked back to school, then walked home again, each day. A half hour before dad got home from the office, mom would corral the boys and their family dog Rip inside the house, and make them quiet down in preparation for dad’s arrival.

After supper (hopefully not liver and onions, dad’s favorite but never Richard’s) the family would kneel around the table each night and pray five decades of the Rosary, which one day greatly impressed a Protestant neighbor who saw the scene through the kitchen window. On summer trips to Bonnet Shores, Mrs. Donnelly would pack two sets of clothes for her sons — one set for the beach, one set for Church. I learned all of these stories and others the first month living with Fr. Donnelly, and heard him tell the same stories again and again every month of the four years I lived with him, as if he was telling them to me for the first time!

This Norman Rockwell childhood came to a tragic end however, during his early high school years at LaSalle, when one day his father suddenly dropped dead of a stroke at work. I don’t think Fr. Richard ever got over that loss, but perhaps this was when he began to develop the great faith and the great compassion he had as a priest, especially toward the sick and grieving.

After high school, young Richard entered Our Lady of Providence Minor Seminary, and was sent by Bishop McVinney to St. Mary’s Seminary Baltimore, staffed by the Sulpician order of priests. It was there that Father said he learned, among other things, “Sulpician Hospitality” towards brother priests, namely that a priest should always be welcoming and caring towards his confrères. It was a lesson he learned well.

He was ordained on June 9, 1962, and was assigned for that summer to Blessed Sacrament Parish in Providence. He would say “All my classmates got summer assignments down at the beach — I got Blessed Sacrament Providence! But I enjoyed that assignment, because I learned how very important visiting the sick is in the life of a priest.” And as anyone who knows him can tell you, there weren’t too many days in his 44 years of active priesthood that Father Donnelly wasn’t out visiting the sick and dying in homes, hospitals, and nursing homes throughout the diocese. He bought Green Scapulars by the thousand and gave them to every sick person he visited.

In all of his assignments as a priest — as a teacher at LaSalle and Our Lady of Providence, as a curate at Blessed Sacrament, St. Joseph Scituate, St. Robert Bellarmine Johnston, St. Patrick Providence, and here at St. Paul, and as a Pastor at St. Clement Warwick and St. Mark Cranston — Father Donnelly was well liked and respected, not only by the laity, but also by the priests he served with.

Here are some things people have written about him at the Providence Journal’s “On-Line Guest Book” accompanying his obituary: A former student says: “I always admired him for his crisp way of doing business and his ramrod straight stature. A good man as well as a good teacher.” A brother priest, Rev. Joseph Protano, writes: “One of our best! Committed, devoted, learned — all with a sharp wit.” And finally, a parishioner comments: “Our family will always remember him as the kind and gentle shepherd of St. Marks parish family.”

Father Donnelly was all these things, and a real character as well. When priests that were assigned with him get together, we all have a great time impersonating his mannerism and sayings, sometimes with him present and enjoying it. Here are my favorite Fr. Donnelly-isms: “Honest to Glory!” “Oh Great Scott!” “You keep smiling.” And the wisest piece of advice he gave me as a young priest: “Michael, you’re ready to be a Pastor, when you worry about the lights!”

While Father worked hard and excelled in all the areas of his priestly ministry, as everyone knows, Fr. Donnelly’s passion as a priest was his Pro Life work. Every Saturday Morning at 8 a.m., rain, snow or shine, you could always find him just down the road from here in front of the Broad St. abortion mill, leading the 15 decades of the Rosary. And I would go so far as to say that — when you consider his tireless and courageous preaching and teaching on the sanctity of human life for so many years, when you consider the encouragement and spiritual direction he has given to almost every major lay pro-life leader in Rhode Island, and finally when you consider the influence he has had on so many priests, deacons and even bishops of our Diocese in this area — one must conclude that Father Richard Donnelly deserves to go down in history as the Founding Father of the Rhode Island Respect Life Movement, without which it wouldn’t be half of what it is today.

In the winter of 2006, Father was diagnosed with stage four liver and lung cancer. Given the prognosis, it was thought by most of his family and friends that it would only be a matter of months before the Lord would take him home. But two years later, Father was weak but still very alive and mentally alert, daily celebrating Mass and praying his breviary at St. Antoine’s Nursing Home. The only pain the always frugal Father said he felt was how “very expensive” this place he was living in was (he hated to have to part with his First Communion money!). He attributed his longevity and lack of pain to two persons, whom he called “My two Girlfriends — Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and Mother Cabrini.”

And the man who spent his whole life visiting the sick was repaid by many visitors who went “all the way to almost Woonsocket” to visit their dear friend. He so appreciated those who visited him, especially Lorita Jussila, his sister-in-law Rose’s sister, and her husband Pete, his sister-in-law Audrey and her children, Michelle Hayes and the Mr. And Mrs. Ed McDonogh, Clair Gruneberg the secretary of St. Marks, Dr. and Mrs. Ted Ferry, Fr. Giacomo Capoverdi, myself, and many others. I want to especially thank Michelle Hayes, Judy McDonogh and Fr. Capoverdi, who stayed beside Fr. Donnelly through the last night of his life, and were with him when he died at 5:27 a.m. this past Wednesday morning.

I was assigned with Father Donnelly at St. Mark’s my first four years of priesthood, from July 1999 to July 2003. It was in September of 1999, that the now famous incident happened, which Father Donnelly never tired of telling, and which I will end with. One Saturday evening after Mass, the two of us went with our clerics on to check out the newly built Providence Place Mall. We went to the top floor to see the view of Waterplace Park that everyone was telling us about. The NBC Gravity Games were going on down below, and their was a little kid with his mother watching them. The kid looked at Fr. Donnelly, and looked at me, and then said “Mommy! Twins!”

Well, Richard, if I get to the end of my earthly life as a priest, and people still say of me “He was Father Richard Donnelly’s twin,” it will be the biggest compliment I could ever ask for.

Ecce, Sacerdos Magnus. Behold, a great priest, who in his life was pleasing to God. Rest in peace, Father Donnelly.

Comments are closed.