SOUTHBURY — In looking back at his time as pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Monsignor Joseph Donnelly recalls the first weekend he arrived from Manchester. He preached a homily that included a story about a parishioner who was helping a child who had no fingers. As they went through the motions of the old children’s game, “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and here are the people,” the adult used her fingers to create the “people,” saying “Let’s you and I make the people.”
That’s what Fr. Joe, as he is known affectionately, has sought to do over his years as pastor, he said: work together with his congregation to create a vibrant ministry.
Fr. Joe is retiring on Tuesday, June 1, and it is clear he will be missed by his “people.” When asked to talk about their experiences or memories of Fr. Joe, parishioners recall well-prepared sermons, homilies that brought scripture to life, a sense of humor and a willingness to engage in social justice.
Ami Conlon, who is the pastoral associate for Faith Formation, said Fr. Donnelly has a very collaborative pastoral leadership style. She said she can “attest to the vision and growth that has been achieved” under his leadership, explaining, he has “empowered lay people” and led parishioners on their own faith journeys.
Sister Patricia Torre, D.W., pastoral associate for Pastoral Ministry, said Fr. Donnelly is a very “hands-on” pastor, who knows everyone’s name and their individual stories. People are quite open to listening and moving forward on a faith journey with his encouragement, she said.
Fr. Donnelly was assigned to Sacred Heart Church on July 6, 2003, replacing Fr. Flynn, who had served the parish for 19 years. Fr. Donnelly knew Fr. Flynn from their days in seminary and so he knew he would be coming into a well-run, well-organized parish.
His main focus was to take what was already there and expand upon it. The expansion of the Parish Center, a new parish rectory and expansion of the worship space by 140 seats are just some of the important milestones that took place under Fr. Donnelly’s leadership, but it is the implementation of new programs in pastoral outreach and interfaith work that really defines his time in Southbury.
One such program is called GIFT – Growing In Faith Together. GIFT, an intergenerational program, arguably offers the largest adult education program in the state. Parents can learn alongside their children, but adults without children are also invited to participate in sessions where they learn new insights and connect to faith in new ways.
Fr. Donnelly said he is especially pleased with the way men have come together on Saturday mornings to support each other in their faith journeys.
Fr. Donnelly explained that when he arrived at Sacred Heart Church, he “listened to people tell their stories.” His desire to reach out and expand programs at the church led him to the realization that it would be good to expand staff as a way to reach more parishioners.
“A lot of parishes don’t have trained staff,” he said. The availability of staff to assist in providing services and guidance for parishioners, he noted, is a huge boost for the church.
As one of the so-called “Three Amigos,” Fr. Donnelly has served as a local leader in bringing the issue of social justice to the forefront. Fr. Donnelly explained he was asked to participate in a session on peace with Imam Gazmend Aga of the Albanian American Muslim Community in Waterbury and Rabbi Eric Polokoff of B’nai Israel in Southbury. The trio spoke about peace from the perspective of their own faiths. The talk proved so popular that they were asked to do it again at other events.
He described the current parish community as a “vibrant faith community.” He said a recent strategic planning session allowed parishioners to express their own feelings about their church. Those feelings expressed by dozens of parishioners were narrowed down to three statements that now grace the sign out in front of the building: “Reimagine Church. Encounter Jesus. Live With Purpose.”
The pandemic prompted some changes in the way many organizations do business, and the church was no different. It is now live-streaming services and the parish “community” has grown to include those in other states as well.
A couple in Michigan recently sent a donation, saying they enjoyed watching the service every Sunday. There was no indication they had any connection to anyone in Connecticut, Fr. Donnelly said.
The church’s good works have also become well known locally. Fr. Donnelly smiled as he told a story of how a decision to provide $5 and $10 gift cards to the homeless in Waterbury apparently had some far-reaching impact. A worker at a McDonald’s, when asked for a set of gift cards, immediately guessed the person making the request was “from that church.”
Fr. Donnelly said he is looking forward to retirement, but will not stop serving as a priest by any means. He said he will continue doing “priest things” by helping out where he is needed. That may mean working with a friend who is a chaplain at Yale to help provide a campus ministry or in participating or leading retreats. “I’m looking forward to that,” he said.
The Hartford Archdiocese recently announced the combining of Sacred Heart Church in Southbury with St. John of the Cross Church in Middlebury. With the retirement of Fr. Donnelly, the pastor of St. John of the Cross, the Rev. Lawrence Symolon, will be pastor of the new faith community.
The timing with his retirement has allowed the two parishes to take it slow in getting to now each other and in designing a ministry that will work for the advantage of both. The pairing makes sense, as the two towns share an educational system, Fr. Donnelly said.
Sacred Heart Church will host a casual outdoor gathering from 3 to 6 p.m. Sunday, June 6, to celebrate Fr. Donnelly’s retirement.
More information is available on the church’s website at sacredheartchurch.info.