Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A Reflection on the Passing of Three Priests in NYC Who Stood With The Poor

Father Thomas Lynch, Pastor of Our Lady of Angels, in Kingsbridge Heights, Bronx, NYC, wrote a reflection for his parish bulletin on the recent passing of three NYC priests who stood with the poor their entire lives.  Folks who lived through the tough times in the Bronx remember Neil Connolly  well for what he and other clergy and religious did to keep our communities together.

Father Lynch's reflection has been circulating the Bronx and here it is below:

It dawned on me that in the span of a few months, we lost three priests here in the Archdiocese who reflected a very visible exposition of Catholic social justice.  Perhaps you may know one or all of them.  Monsignor Neil Connolly, Mgr. Howard Calkins and Mgr. John Ahern.  And while we say good-bye to them, we owe them a great deal of gratitude.  We also are invited to accept the baton from them to reflect Jesus’ love of the poor.  If you haven’t noticed, this is perhaps the most paramount theme of Pope Francis. 

Would you mind some personal reflections of these three priests? 

Neil Connolly was a pastor first in the South Bronx and then in lower Manhattan.  He was one of the first classes of newly ordained priests to go study Spanish in order to serve the fast waves of Puerto Ricans and other Spanish groups filling up parts of New York City, especially the Bronx.  But for Neil, it was not simply to study Spanish, it was to learn the culture, it was to accompany the people in their customs and most of all in their faith.  He was certainly aware of what he could bring in terms of his own gifts, but he was very conscious of what he could learn and how he could better serve.    He loved workshops and organized discussions.  He especially encouraged and even demanded that people realize their role as members of the Church, they are not to simply sit and be preached to, rather they are called to live the Gospel and build up the church by their concrete love for one another, especially for people without a voice.  Even until his dying day, he was speaking about organizing discussions among retired priests.  That openness to dialogue, that keen awareness of those overlooked or ignored, that fresh approach to build up and be renewed characterized Neil Connolly is such a vivid way to all who had the opportunity to meet him.

Howard Calkins served primarily in the Black Apostolate and in poor parishes as well. Like Neil, “Howie” allowed himself to be formed by the Black poor.  He in turn showed them how rich they were indeed, their music, their style of prayer, and their prophetic call for justice.  He also showed his parishioners firsthand what it meant to forgive.  He was once stabbed outside his church but quickly calmed everyone down by forgiving his attacker.  One of his familiar roles was to support brother priests and organize both locally and nationally.   His love and service was so palpable.  In his latter years, he suffered dementia.  And even in those dark days for him, the stories from his friends and parishioners who came to visit him all speak about his beautiful smile. 

Finally, John Ahern was a priest who lived off the Bowery for so much of his priesthood.  He ran what was once called the Holy Name Centre for Homeless Men.  In addition to his love for the poor, he brought a skill set of incredible organization and a no nonsense approach to service.  He once said, “We don’t go the poor as reformers, rather we love them where they are.”  Perhaps that’s why thousands of homeless men made their way to the Centre.  John taught me firsthand that a key way to help those who have come on hard times was to be authentic, not a phony. I can hear the words of Jesus say to John, “When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat….” You know the rest! 

Three excellent models of social justice in action.  However, they would not want us to admire them, they would rather want us, in our own way, to live out Jesus’ command to serve to poor, the marginalized, the homeless, the unwanted, the unloved.   The way these priests  help us is by reminding us that our own intimate relationship with Jesus will always become a source of healing in our relationships with one another.

Thank you Neil, Howie and John.  Keep on teaching us the way to live in Christ Jesus!


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Irene. These priests certainly do deserve to be remembered.

  2. Along with others now gone, they were a remarkable band of brothers.

  3. "We don't go to the poor as reformers." Breath of fresh air! Protestants tend to want to "fix" poverty by "fixing" the poor--making them more marketable, smell and look prettier, break their bad habits, and teach them how to manage their money better. I suppose there is a place for that, bit the baggage of judgment that goes with that is pretty onerous.

  4. As a sometime student of 19th century reformers in NYC, i.e., Charles Loring Brace, Friendly Visiting visitors,etc., I have wondered if the Irish had a deep resisitance to reforming betterment (often, but not always Protestant) and that's why they went into politics.

  5. ​I had the great good fortune to know Neil Connolly and, much less well, John Ahern. It’s wonderful to see this tribute to them. For more on Neil Connolly: