By Angel Garcia | November 20, 2020
In Puerto Rican Heritage Month, it is appropriate to remember the positive and negative interactions between the Puerto Rican people and the institutions of New York City, as they brought their language, history and culture into the “urban jungle” during the mid-20th century. One of those institutions was the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, as represented by its churches and schools, and its priests and sisters.
The Kingdom Began in Puerto Rico: Neil Connolly’s Priesthood in the South Bronx by Angel Garcia
Fr. Neil Connolly’s role in this process – and the development of his transformative vision of Church and priesthood – began with a new way of understanding Catholicism, in Puerto Rico. There, where the majority of the rural people rarely saw a priest except on very special occasions, Connolly was taught Spanish and Puerto Rican history and culture. But the greatest impression on his faith and understanding of Church came from his weekend trips to the countryside, where he heard his first confessions in the back of a general store and said his first masses as an independent ordained priest in a simple box-style cement structure on a mountaintop. The intense and deep faith expressed by the Jíbaro people, who had developed a self-sufficient, lay-led Catholicism, show him that they were just as Catholic as those believers in the typical Irish-American Catholic parish, with its many formal rituals and cluster of buildings, from church and rectory to convent, school and hall.
In his first assignment as a priest in New York, Connolly became involved in their lives and conditions as a parish priest of St. Athanasius in Hunts Point–Longwood, the neighborhood with the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans in the Bronx. He served thousands, and worked with them to grow a thriving parish. As thousands of the newly arrived migrants from Puerto Rico attended Mass, sought out baptisms and attended religious education, Connolly, with his language abilities and cultural openness, became the sought-after priest by the Puerto Ricans in the parish. It even led him to defend himself before a priest who complained that the Irish parishioners – whom he called “the American people”– felt they were being ignored by Connolly, in favor of the Puerto Ricans and Cubans. Then, through a unique program, Summer in the City, that brought the Church staff and artists to the streets to build relationships with everyone, parishioners and non-parishioners, Connolly co-founded the Seneca Center, a chapel and comprehensive community services organization in the forgotten Peninsula neighborhood, both led by lay leaders, both Cuban and Puerto Rican.
In the late 1960’s and 1970’s, he lived with them as they endured “the unholy trinity” of epidemics of poverty, drugs and crime that plagued the city, and especially Puerto Rican and black neighborhoods such as Hunts Point Longwood. At one point, when church finances were so bad that they had to let go of the paid cook, they opened up to the people and asked them if they could eat in their homes. Through years of building relationships with them, Connolly and the staff knew that these Puerto Ricans were still as warm and accepting as the ones they had come to know in their first summer on the island. The people responded from every corner of the parish, and Connolly and the other priests came to enjoy a year of truly home-made Puerto Rican food.
Connolly went from being a servant of the community to being an activist, as historical conditions and his compassion for the people dictated that he take a stand. He protested the growing housing neglect and abandonment of the late 1960’s, which intensified in the poor neighborhoods such as Hunts Point, and fought for emergency repairs as many of them suffered that neglect and abandonment. The housing campaigns led him to another campaign – this one for his friend Fr. Gigante, who was frustrated by the harsh conditions and neglect by landlords and government experienced by their Puerto Rican parishioners. Gigante ran for Congress in what was called the first “Puerto Rican” district, created in 1970 in response to the Voting Rights Act, and Connolly joined him. In doing so, they fought against the 2 leading Puerto Rican political leaders of the South Bronx, Herman Badillo, the eventual winner, and anti-poverty power broker Ramon Velez.
But perhaps Connolly’s most significant contribution in terms of the Puerto Rican communities he had worked with was the commitment he developed to two South Bronx organizations that built leaders for the Church and the World in all the South Bronx communities. One, the South Bronx Pastoral Center, created by his colleague and friend Fr. Bob Stern, was chaired and supported by Connolly. The Center was a school for lay ministers which prepared hundreds of people, mostly Puerto Ricans who had now been established in the parishes of the South Bronx, to lead those parishes and become Catholic leaders. Connolly, in fact, was a teacher of dozens of those laypersons.
The second, South Bronx People for Change, was a social action organization that taught laypersons, both Puerto Rican and black, from all corners of the South Bronx, to lead the Church and to use organized power, in the ongoing fight for just living conditions in the poorest Congressional District in the United States. In both those organizations, Connolly was able to advance the vision he had developed of a Church modeled after the Second Vatican Council, which called for a Church to be the people of God, and to be “in the world”, creating a just, unified world that treated all persons with dignity and equality.
There would have probably been a different path to developing this vision of the Catholic Church for Connolly, but history dictated that his path would begin in Puerto Rico, where his journey to true priesthood in the South Bronx began in the summer of 1958, as the people of Puerto Rico taught him the strong open faith and their yearning for a good life of dignity, and a united community.
Angel Garcia was a community organizer and Executive Director of South Bronx People for Change, a Church-based direct action and membership organization cofounded by Fr. Connolly. Born in Puerto Rico, and a graduate of Regis High School, Princeton University, and Pace University, Garcia is a long-term resident of the South Bronx and has been active on social justice issues and worker cooperatives.