Monsignor John Donnelly was more than a priest. To many local Catholics, he was a confidant and a friend – almost part of the family. He watched them grow, married them, baptized their children and helped bury their parents.
While he inspired his flock with his vision of the Catholic faith, it was his personal connection and his deep interest in his parishioners’ lives in and outside the church that made him one of a kind.
Donnelly died on July 27, after suffering from Parkinson’s disease and lung cancer.
Donnelly was extremely open and a brilliant intellectual, friends and family say.
“He’s ultimately the reason I became a Catholic, down the road,” said Dan Morris-Young, who worked with Donnelly at the Inland Register, the Spokane diocese newspaper. “He certainly wasn’t afraid of challenging people. He was probably one of the most articulate people you could meet.”
Donnelly was editor of the paper from 1959 to 1964 and then again in 1967; he became the paper’s executive editor in 1975 until his retirement from journalism in 1980.
Born to Julia and Roy Donnelly in 1932, Donnelly spent most of his life in the Spokane area. After being ordained in May 1958, he attended University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and began a 20-year commitment with the world of news. Other than being the Inland Register’s editor, he also served as the director of the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Bureau of Information and was a Rome correspondent for the National Catholic News Service between 1962 and 1967. Among his many assignments were the last stages of the Second Vatican Council, President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the Six Day Arab-Israeli war.
“I consider journalism as a proper field for a priest as for anyone else,” Donnelly said in a Spokesman-Review interview in 1980. “It was the profession of St. Paul and the four evangelists – among others – to communicate by the written word the wonder of God’s creation.”
He said then that the role of the Catholic newspaper was to supplement people’s understanding of world affairs with a perspective that arises from their faith.
“He was extraordinarily insistent on journalistic principle,” said Morris-Young, who succeeded Donnelly as editor. “His stance was always the truth is the truth and we have to dig it out as best as we can.”
Donnelly’s eyewitness accounts of the Second Vatican Council were chronicled in the Council Day Book, which he co-authored.
In an e-mail statement, Spokane Diocese Bishop William Skylstad said Donnelly’s unique position as a reporter at that time gave him “profound insight into the workings of the Council and the life of the Church and her needs.”
“His life was totally dedicated to serving the church. That service was enhanced by his abilities of preaching and writing,” Skylstad said in the e-mail. “He clearly loved the priesthood, the church and the people whom he served.”
While in Rome in 1967, Donnelly was given the honorary title of papal chamberlain. Aside from his journalistic endeavors, Donnelly was pastor of several parishes over the years including St. Anthony’s and Assumption parishes in Spokane, St. Mary’s in Deer Park, Immaculate Conception in Colville and the Holy Family parish in Clarkston. He was also the rector at the Bishop White Seminary.
“Every parish he was in, everyone just loved him,” said his cousin, Katherine Ruen. He made lifelong friends and when he died, the Cathedral was filled with people, Ruen said, a testament to how many lives he had touched. “His life was his parish; the priests, they give their lives for that.”
But more than anything it is his day-to-day interactions, especially with the youth, that many people will not forget. Donnelly loved young people and worked hard to instill in them a sense of their faith, said Frank DeCaro, who was director for the Catholic youth group at St. Anthony’s Parish for 12 years.
“He would inspire and work with young people to find greatness in themselves,” DeCaro said. “I just love how he came to life with the youth.”
Donnelly was always one to laugh and make fun, DeCaro said. He remembers telling Donnelly before camping trips to pray that it didn’t rain. Donnelly would reply, “I’m in sales not management.”
“Father Donnelly was a strong one in putting in my mind that young people are not the church of tomorrow, they really are part of the church today,” DeCaro said. He was extremely generous not only with his time, but also with his money, helping anyone who asked, DeCaro said. He seemed to live by St. Francis of Assisi’s advice to, “preach the gospel, use words when necessary,” DeCaro said.
Steve Richards, 24, had known Donnelly since he was about 10 years old.
“If you ever needed to talk to someone, he was always there,” Richards said. “He changed a lot of people’s lives; he kept me off the road of trouble.”
Richards, who remembers Donnelly’s love for bright Hawaiian shirts, said the priest never judged him. He often accompanied young people to dinner or the movies and he was always supportive, Richards said.
Morris-Young said Donnelly found a lot of affection and support in lay people.
“John ran outside clerical circles more often than not,” Morris-Young said, adding that through Donnelly he got to see that behind the holy garb, priests are just like other human beings.
“He made it pretty clear that priests aren’t people to be put on pedestals,” Morris-Young said.
After his retirement in 1990, Donnelly battled with Parkinson’s and was diagnosed with lung cancer just a few days before his death. He is survived by one nephew and numerous cousins.
“Now he’s in management,” DeCaro said.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.