Msgr. Neil Connolly is the recipient of this year’s 2014 Msgr. Thomas A Kleissler Award. He will receive the award and be honored at RENEW International’s 15th Annual Gala on June 5, 2014. The award is named for RENEW’s co-founder and is given to a person or persons who exemplify one or more of the remarkable qualities of Father Tom:
- a visionary and missionary spirit of church renewal
- commitment to justice as integral to faith
- dedication to the formation of lay leadership
- devotion to spiritual renewal through the building of small Christian communities.
Msgr. Connolly, is a pioneer in lay ministry formation. Following his ordination in 1958, he went to Ponce, Puerto Rico, where he became fluent in Spanish and the culture of the island. His first assignment was at St. Athanasius Parish in the South Bronx where he facilitated the creation of a summer program in the parks using art and culture to capture the imaginations of youth as an alternative to drug activity and violence. Cardinal Terence Cooke appointed him vicar of the South Bronx. In the 1960s he collaborated with the Center for Pastoral Life in New York City and was instrumental in creating an institute for the formation of lay leadership and community organization in the South Bronx. In the 10 years of its existence the institute trained and formed more than 2,000 lay leaders, creating vibrant parish life in the South Bronx. The right and responsibility of the laity to minister because of their baptism is a thread that has run through Msgr. Connolly’s more than 80 years of life.
From his experience in Puerto Rico and work in Latin America Msgr. Connolly knew the value of church as a community of communities. He says, “It is a no-brainer to invite, challenge, and use the God-given gifts of the laity to further the kingdom of God. Ministerial communities are needed today more than ever.”
From the South Bronx Msgr. Connolly went to St Mary’s Parish in Manhattan, one of the oldest Catholic parishes in New York and a center of Latino life on the Lower East Side for six decades. When he arrived in the mid-1980s, Msgr. Connolly confronted a range of social problems, including violence, drugs, and poverty. Msgr. Connolly has been a vigorous advocate for low-income housing. For many years, he stood with residents fighting for low-income housing within the Seward Park Mixed-Use Development Project.
After 28 years at St. Mary’s, Msgr. Connolly became a senior priest at St. Francis De Sales Parish on East 96th Street where he continues to compassionately minister to the people of God. In each parish in which he has ministered, he has implemented small Christian communities using RENEW’s methodology and materials. Currently he is using RENEW’s resource Longing for the Holy with English, Spanish and Italian members of the St. Francis de Sales community. For these people small Christian communities are a new experience, and they love it.