Father Joseph M. McDonnell, a diocesan priest for nearly 75 years, died Dec. 24, 2004, at Rochester General Hospital after a brief illness.
He was 99 years old and had lived longer than any other priest in diocesan history. His 100th birthday would have been Jan. 12, 2005.
“We just couldn’t squeeze out another 19 days from our Lord,” remarked Father McDonnell’s nephew, Edward McDonnell, referring to plans for a 100th-birthday celebration.
Father McDonnell grew up in St. Mary’s Parish in Bath. He attended St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries, and was ordained in 1930 by Bishop John O’Hern at the former St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Rochester.
He served as assistant pastor at Rochester’s Holy Rosary Parish (1930-38) and St. Mary’s Parish (1938-41), and was then chaplain at the State School at Industry, a reformatory for boys (1941-44).
In 1944 Father McDonnell became pastor of St. Gabriel’s, Hammondsport/St. Patrick’s, Prattsburgh, where he served for six years. Beginning in 1950 he spent seven years as pastor of St. Ignatius Loyola in Hornell.
The year 1957 saw the arrival of Father McDonnell as pastor of St. Michael’s Parish in Newark. He ended up staying for more than four decades: 18 years as pastor until his 1975 retirement, and 24 years as pastor emeritus.
“He was very, very well loved,” said Father Peter Clifford, pastor of St. Michael’s since 1995. “He was a very affable man.”
Father Clifford noted that once, at a parish gathering, some glassware was accidentally broken. “There was a huge hush, and, after a few moments, he said, ‘This is a good time for a song.’ That broke the ice. That was very much vintage Joe.”
Father McDonnell had a fondness for singing, a devotion to his Irish heritage, and a love for golf — he was a member for many years at Newark Country Club. Father Clifford, who lived with Father McDonnell for four years, also noted that “we had a mutual affection for Notre Dame football.”
“He was a fun guy to be with,” Edward McDonnell said. “He was a regular guy; he happened to be an uncle who wore a black suit and white collar. He didn’t expect any special consideration because he was a priest.”
Father McDonnell’s affability extended to his love for children; the St. Michael’s School gymnasium is named after him. “Certainly I like kids. Who wouldn’t enjoy children?” Father McDonnell had remarked in a November 2004 Courier profile about him.
In the 1960s Father McDonnell oversaw a major expansion to the school, and also incorporated the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on increased lay participation. “Uncle Joe was very receptive to it,” Edward McDonnell said.
Father Clifford said that Father McDonnell remained highly active in his retirement, regularly celebrating Mass and going on Communion calls well into his 90s. He also gave quiet financial support to many who were in need.
In 1999 Father McDonnell moved to McAuley Residence at the Sisters of Mercy Motherhouse, where he continued to live a vibrant life.
“For a person 99 years old, his grasp of what was going on was extraordinary,” Edward McDonnell said.
Father McDonnell is survived by his nephew, Edward (Joann), and nieces, Joanne (Tom) Koch and Therese (Jim) Dudden; and several great-nephews, great-nieces and cousins.
Bishop Matthew H. Clark presided at Father McDonnell’s Dec. 30 funeral Mass at St. Michael’s Church. Interment was at Newark Cemetery.
Donations in his memory may be made to St. Michael Church or St. Michael School, 401 South Main St., Newark, NY 14513.