Msgr. James Connelly's grandmother planted the idea of becoming a priest during his first Communion. A speaker at Bennett High School in Buffalo cultivated it. A priest mentioned how an ordinary student could become a priest if God was calling him. That priest, Father Michael Gallagher, assisted Msgr. Connelly many years later at his first Mass after ordination.
"I started thinking a bit about the priest and the good he would give in service in helping other people. I had a very strong feeling that to help other people was a primary importance. It started developing that my ability to do that would be given to me through the priesthood," Msgr. Connelly said.
After high school, still on the edge of the Great Depression, the young lad went to work at Buffalo Forge Company to earn enough money to pay for his first year of Canisius College in Buffalo. At the end of that first year, the president of the college offered him a full scholarship, saying the young student had what it took to become a Jesuit. Instead, Msgr. Connelly decided to enter the diocesan priesthood, feeling he'd have more freedom to help people. That has always been his goal.
After two years at Canisius, he moved on to Niagara University and Seminary of Our Lady of Angels located there. Bishop John O'Hara, namesake of his current residence, ordained him in June of 1949.
His first assignment was to work with newly ordained priests in the Missionary Apostolate. After a year, he was named assistant pastor of St. Benedict Parish in Eggertsville. After three years there, he returned to the Missionary Apostolate, but requested that Bishop Joseph A. Burke send him back to a parish, as he wanted to serve the people of the diocese directly. So, he went to St. Joseph Parish in Buffalo and worked along Msgr. Albert Rung. Msgr. Rung also served as vicar general for the diocese. When Bishop Burke traveled to Rome for the Second Vatican Council, Msgr. Rung served as diocesan administrator, with Msgr. Connelly as his secretary, joining him on confirmations.
Then came pastorates at SS. Peter & Paul in Arcade, St. Martin of Tours in South Buffalo, St. Pius X in Getzville, and St. Mary in Medina; a total of 34 years.
"And I loved every minute of it, where I could give service to people who meant so much to me all through my priestly life," he said.
"The priesthood has been particularly generous and wonderful to me," Msgr. Connelly said, reflecting on his vocation. "When Bishop Head came to our diocese, he offered me, with his grace and blessing permission to refuse, an administrative job in his chancery. If I accepted that job, the primary thought in my mind was, 'Could I help people?' I wanted to be a pastor from the first day of ordination to the moment we're at right now. I had other offers of administrative promotions from two other bishops, and again, most gratefully declined."
Msgr. Connelly spent his years in the priesthood caring for people, helping families, giving instruction to those who wished to be Catholic Christians, visiting prisoners as a chaplain of Albion Correctional Facility, and actively taking part in interfaith community meetings. He is proud that he never missed a payment of the diocesan assessment in all his 34 years as a pastor.
Since retiring in 1995, he has remained active at St. Timothy Parish in Tonawanda where he assists Father Dennis Fronckowiak by celebrating Mass and visiting parishioners in the hospital.
"I am delighted to still be involved in one way or another in helping people and giving sacramental services to them," he said.
As a retired priest living in one of the four diocesan residences for retired priests, he lives off retirement benefits. He said his needs are taken care of, adding that he is in relatively good health despite turning 95 in just a month.
"I still assist one way or another, especially financially, poor families," he said. "If a father is out of work and I can help a family, I do. I am not a wealthy person. I'm not on welfare. I have enough to give me a very modest funeral. Some of our retired guys haven't been blessed, like I am, with relatively good health. There is a demand on them and the diocese for additional help."
To make a contribution to help retired priests, consider donating to the diocesan retirement fund during the second collection held in diocesan parishes on Aug. 6 and 7. Contributions may also be mailed to Diocese of Buffalo, Lockbox Dept. 294, P.O. Box 8000, Buffalo, NY 14240.