Father McDonnell accepts the gifts of bread and wine from Sheila Conway, parish development coordinator/liaison to clergy, left, and his sister, Patricia Turnbach. Mike Ehrmann photos
Father McDonnell accepts the gifts of bread and wine from Sheila Conway, parish development coordinator/liaison to clergy, left, and his sister, Patricia Turnbach. Mike Ehrmann photos

When an Irish storyteller like Father Patrick J. McDonnell is ready to spin a tale about his 46 years as a Roman Catholic priest, pull up a chair, listen and learn.

“One thing they have in Ireland is the seanchaí, the storytellers,” the first-generation Irishman said. “Over the years, I have come up with a sermon or two that were very meaningful to the people that bring the Gospel into a storytelling they can relate to. I hope to write them down.”

Sharing his insights on the Gospel is on the list of Father McDonnell’s goals now that he is retired, and since early July, living in Villa Vianney, the diocesan residence for retired priests in Lawrenceville.

Cultural Outreach

Father McDonnell was born in 1944 in Orange, one of three children of Irish immigrants, Patrick and Margaret. The Dominican Sisters of Caldwell who taught in his Catholic school, the clergy and the “sense of mystery in the sanctuary” he experienced led him to the priesthood.

The future Father McDonnell received his theological formation in Immaculate Conception Seminary, Darlington, and earned a master’s degree in education in St. John University, Queens, N.Y. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Paterson by Bishop Lawrence Casey May 5, 1973, and then served 13 years as parochial vicar in St. Paul Parish, Prospect Park, and St. Theresa Parish, Succasunna.

The next chapter of his life was filled with the desire to minister to the Hispanic community on the Texas-Mexico border, prompted by his reading about the work of Bishop John Fitzpatrick, an early bishop of the border diocese of Brownsville, Texas. Father McDonnell, inspired to help, learned the Spanish language in Mexico and began work with the Hispanic population in four Texas parishes.

“It was a rougher environment, but meaningful work,” he remembered. “They were in dire need. I found myself learning about the culture of the people.”

Father McDonnell returned to New Jersey and arrived in the Diocese of Trenton in 1997, serving as parochial vicar in Our Lady of Sorrows Parish, Mercerville, (now part of Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony Parish, Hamilton) and St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton. He also assumed the temporary administrator role in St. Dorothea Parish, Eatontown, and St. John the Baptist Parish, Allentown.

Father McDonnell was incardinated in the Diocese of Trenton in 2001 and was appointed to St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown, that year. “The Spanish I had learned was beneficial there,” he said. “We welcomed the new culture, made people feel like this is their place.”

Meeting Goals

A large capital campaign was launched to fund a 4,500-square-foot annex, a new heating and cooling system, refurbished pews, a baptistery and renovated sacristy and other improvements. Explaining how he met, then surpassed, the goal, Father McDonnell said, “The people are there, but they have to be invited to help. Maybe they help at just one event, but it is one that is important to them.

“They like to know you are sincere, you are who you say you are, authentic,” he continued. “Someone told me a long time ago, ‘Love the people and let them love you.’”

His decision to retire marked perhaps the penultimate chapter of his 46 years of priestly service. Father McDonnell explained, “I spent 19 years at St. Anthony’s, a time during which we were able to transform the church into a modern yet worshipping place as well as transform the community of faith. I think I was able to make a difference. You know when you’re done, and when it’s time to turn it over, I was ready.”

As a resident of Villa Vianney, the former pastor is ready to begin his retirement – in name only. Though he is barely unpacked from his move, he’s looking ahead to the next chapter of his life.

“They say about arthritis that motion is medicine,” he explained. “It is the same for me. You can’t just sit around with the memories. There are about 24 guys in this house, men who are all seasoned pastors who have stories. I want to listen, but not just sit in a rocking chair.”