Father Patrick McDonnell has spent 50 years as a priest, and, he says, “I’m still learning.”
Since his retirement in 2019, “Maybe I learned to be more of a listener — some of that has come in retirement,” he said. “I’m no longer calling the shots or seeking approval, so maybe there’s humility.”
Father McDonnell, who worked in parishes in the Dioceses of Paterson and Trenton as well as with migrant farmworkers in Texas, said he continues to learn from gardening, his new passion, and from his fellow priests at Villa Vianney, the diocesan home for retired clergy.
In the company of elderly priests, he said, “You’re looking clearly at the wounds of Christ in the Church ... we see how important people are and to treat them with dignity and care.”
Working in the yard and garden, he said, gives him satisfaction; he likes to plant to bring out things of beauty.
“Weeding and planting is my therapy,” he said. “I pay attention to little things, to birds. People and nature are waiting to be nourished and nurtured. I now have more time to pay greater attention to God.”
On June 3, Father McDonnell celebrated the golden anniversary of his ordination as priest in St. Anthony of Padua Church, Hightstown, where he served as pastor from 2000 until he retired in 2019.
Born in 1944, Father McDonnell was one of three children of Margaret and Patrick McDonnell, immigrants from Ireland. Of his family home in Elizabeth, just two minutes away from their parish, St. Catherine of Siena, he said, “The seeds were there” for sprouting a vocation to the priesthood.
“There were so many factors — not one thing — which led to my vocation. There was the culture of priests, the parish, the sisters,” as well as “Catholic schooling, Bing Crosby in ‘Going My Way’ contributing to it,” he said. As he matured, frequent participation at Mass and receiving the Eucharist amplified the calling.
He prepared for the priesthood in Immaculate Conception Seminary, Darlington, and earned a master’s degree in education from St. John’s University, Queens, N.Y.
On May 5, 1973, Father McDonnell was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Paterson by Bishop Lawrence B. Casey. He served as parochial vicar in St. Paul Parish, Prospect Park, and St. Therese Parish, Succansunna.
Father McDonnell finds working in the garden at Villa Vianney satisfying, focusing on bringing out “things of beauty.” Mary Stadnyk photo
Looking to be proactive in serving the marginalized, Father McDonnell worked among migrant farmworkers in Texas from 1986 through 1997.
In 1997, he returned to New Jersey and served as parochial vicar in Our Lady of Sorrows (now Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony) Parish, Hamilton, and St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton. Later he was temporary administrator of St. Dorothea Parish, Eatontown, and St. John the Baptist Parish, Allentown.
Incardinated into the Diocese of Trenton in 2001, he was named pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish.
Connecting With People
Reflecting on his half century of service, Father McDonnell shared that his connection with people in his assigned parishes was the foremost source of joy.
“In my first parish, I led the ministry for senior members of the parish. They became like grandparents to me. We got to know and care for each other,” he recalled. “Sometimes the young priest in a parish becomes like a grandson. They were wonderful — a real joy.”
He treasures the memories of his work in southern Texas, where he experienced connection and fellowship with itinerant farmworkers as well as farmers and teachers who resided there.
“[Priests] remember the affirmation of the faithful,” said Father McDonnell. “How they respond to God’s grace is encouraging. In a good faith community where people care for you and you for them, you’ve got family.”
In retirement, he enjoys not having the responsibilities of being a parish administrator and being more available to celebrate Mass for his former parishioners in St. Anthony of Padua or the residents at Morris Hall in Lawrenceville.
He said one challenge of priestly life has been balancing his relationship with people and God.
“Our degree of sharing has limits. It is important to keep healthy friendships with other priests to avoid isolation,” he said.
When advising someone considering the priesthood or religious life, he said he would recommend that the man “talk to a priest or a sister who is happy.
“We all need validating people who love the Lord,” Father McDonnell said. “The best advice I received was, ‘Love the people, and let them love you.’”