Obituary: Long-time Pilot columnist Msgr. Thomas J. McDonnell dies at 73

Msgr. Thomas J. McDonnell Pilot file photo

Perhaps Msgr. Thomas J. McDonnell was best known as a “city priest”; indeed his love of his hometown, Boston, was palpable. It seemed that no matter where he was Boston was never too far from his prayers, his thoughts and his mind.

Msgr. McDonnell was also a regular columnist for The Pilot for at least a quarter century. Readers relished his incredible ability to bring a fresh perspective on a theological or spiritual point, drawing from his own personal experiences, as well as those of the poor, overlooked or forgotten, those with special physical needs or the handicapped. He also had an incredible ability to interweave scriptural texts with literature of every stripe. Scanning a smattering of his columns a reader would find citations from Catholic, other Christian, non-Christian sources and even avowed atheists which with amazing ease he could use to shine on his topic.

Thoroughly a Bostonian from his birth in Mattapan and his pride in his home parish, St. Angela Merici, he seemed also at home in any place he was assigned or found himself. He might not appreciate it; but in its classical sense, he was “cosmopolitan.”

He was born on Jan. 26, 1936, a son of the late Thomas and Mary (Moran) McDonnell. He attended the parish grammar school, Boston College High School, and the archdiocesan seminaries in Jamaica Plain and Brighton. He was sent to complete seminary formation at Rome’s Pontifical North American College with his theological studies at The Gregorian University.

The then rector of the college, Bishop Martin J. O’Connor ordained him to the priesthood in the College Chapel on Dec. 18, 1960. He remained in Rome until the following spring to complete his studies.

On his return to the archdiocese he was named an assistant at St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish in Beverly. Also assigned to the parish at the time was young Father John M. D’Arcy. Though the assignment at Beverly was only a year long, the two became fast and steady friends; years later he was still remembered there fondly and had established a number of good friends among the parishioners.

He was back in Rome in 1962 where he was awarded a doctorate in Sacred Theology, (STD), also from the Gregorian University. Father D’Arcy, though older, followed him to Rome later on.

In 1964 he returned home and was assigned as an assistant at South Boston’s St. Augustine Parish, a place that would become more his home as the years passed. In 1969 he was assigned to the faculty of the archdiocesan seminary at Brighton as a teacher of theology. Soon to join him would be Father D’Arcy.

He handed on to a generation of priests the importance of seeing theology as something not simply in books, but also arising from the multiple experiences of human life. Since theology might be seen as the expression of human experience of God, the locus, the condition and the person becomes part of that expression.

In 1978 his priestly life took on some new twists when Cardinal Humberto Medeiros assigned him to several disparate responsibilities. One was as “Censor Librorum” -- basically the bishop’s point man for approving ecclesiastical publications; he was also the vicar for religious serving as the touch point between the cardinal and the women and men religious of the archdiocese, and in a nod to his zeal for social justice, Director of the Campaign for Human Development. In 1982 he was named Coordinator of the Ministry to Handicapped Persons. Together with Sister Margaret (Peggy) Youngclaus, SND, he built an amazing structure of volunteers and programs across the archdiocese, but more importantly they created an awareness of the needs of the handicapped and the commitment to integrate them in every sphere of the Church’s and society’s life.

Perhaps the last twist was an award this year to Msgr. McDonnell from the Catholic Press Association given at its meeting in Anaheim, Calif. in late May for one of his Pilot columns, “Lent’s Call: Contemplating the face of Christ. ” The judges praised Msgr. McDonnell’s column saying “Msgr. McDonnell uses anecdotes as effective tools to get his points across. He’s also resourceful. McDonnell extracts just two words from the Scriptures -- “I thirst” -- and uses them as a springboard for a surprising number of theological reflections.”

He was named pastor of St. Augustine Parish in South Boston on Feb. 15, 1983 and of neighboring St. Monica Parish on Sept. 1, 1997. In “Southie” he became a fixture in the city, his wise counsel sought by parishioners and politicians alike. The many friendships he developed over the years gave rise to much behind the scenes work and activity on behalf of the city and the parish. The many and varied awards he garnered over the years from religious and civic groups, citations from politicians and church leaders clearly demonstrates the effect of his priestly life and ministry.

Pope John Paul II named him a member of the papal household as a Prelate of Honor with the title of Reverend Monsignor on April 21, 1998.

By 2003 his health was seriously declining and on Feb. 2, 2004 he was granted senior priest/retirement status. From that time he lived in residence at St. Mary Parish, Dedham. He was invited to the Dedham parish by another of his former collaborators then-Father John Dooher.

His health had declined steadily, and he used to joke about the many false alarms about his “near death” alerts. Even in his illness he was still preaching, especially through his columns in this publication, and in others as well.

He died after a long struggle with cancer on June 14, 2009.

His long time friend and former fellow assistant at Beverly, Bishop John M. D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind. was scheduled to be the principal celebrant of the funeral Mass at St. Monica St. Augustine Church in South Boston on June 20, 2009. Another friend and former collaborator on the St. John’s Seminary faculty, Father John Farrell, pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption Parish, Lynnfield was to be the homilist. Among those indicating their attendance were his former altar boy from South Boston, Central Regional Bishop Robert Hennessey; his former associate and also former pastor during his retirement at Dedham, Bishop John Dooher. Archdiocesan Vicar General, Father Richard Erikson; Vicar and Secretary for Parish Life, Father Thomas Foley; Father William Williams and Father William Lohan, from St. Mary, Dedham.

Msgr. McDonnell’s survivors are his sister, Sister Immaculata Marie, SND of Ipswich and his brother George, Brockton. He will be greatly missed by many -- parishioners, friends, Pilot readers and his many priestly brothers. Following the funeral Mass Msgr. McDonnell will be buried in St. Joseph Cemetery, West Roxbury.

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