For N.Y. priest, it is `worst year, worst season'

One by one, churches by the sea remember the dead of Sept. 11

November 15, 2001|By Geraldine Baum | Geraldine Baum,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BREEZY POINT, N.Y. - For 20 years, Monsignor Michael J. Connelly has led a quiet life, tending this parish on the tip of the Rockaway Peninsula. He also read Irish poetry and played some golf.

His parishioners are the sons and daughters of laborers and civil servants who became firefighters, stockbrokers and nurses. For them, an extraordinary life meant going in every morning to the tall, glimmering buildings in Manhattan, where many died on Sept. 11. Adding to the tension in the area is Monday's airliner crash in nearby Rockaway Beach.

But now, 75 of the peninsula's young - 13 of them from Breezy Point - have been coming home one by one, in a numbing and despairing routine, to be remembered in churches by the sea. For so many of the faithful, it has been a time to lean on priests like Connelly to lay the young to rest and shepherd their families through an awful period.

This comes at an uneasy time for Connelly. He is older now, tired and sick with Parkinson's disease.

At age 67, the priest with the piercing blue eyes and white hair is being called to do the worst and the most.

He has officiated at 10 memorial services and has gone to countless others since Sept. 11. He knows he has at least one more young man to eulogize at St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church. A firefighter's family still is not ready for a funeral rite.

`We are waiting'

"They're not going to do anything until they have something to bury," he says. "So we are waiting."

He says "we" because he has been so close these last few weeks to his flock, as he has always been.

But it is hard, he notes quietly, to bring consolation to so many at once. He has visited the families in their homes and has shared their emotions, the ups and downs, as a priest and neighbor would. He sat with the Dowdells, Sullivans, Mulligans, Kanes and Gregorys.

"I went to be with most of them," he says. "But what can you say to the families except: This is savagery. If it's religion, it's inconceivable to me."

He also has sat alone in the rectory, trying to find words for homilies and wondering how to contour Roman Catholic liturgy for mourning when bodies are lost in rubble and there are no caskets to send off at the church vestibule.

These have been difficult times for the priest.

"It's something you were wishing were over, hoping the memorial services would wash away the grief," says Connelly, who speaks with a soft Irish accent.

He was a young man when he left Tuam, Galway, to be a priest across the ocean. It was ordinary for an Irish farm boy first to go to boarding school and then to seminary. But to come to America was something else.

"I wasn't thrilled with the idea in the beginning," he says. "But I've grown to love America as much as someone born here."

Every night for the week after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Connelly celebrated Mass. In between visits to grieving families and extra church services, he also officiated at baptisms and at a few weddings. And he spoke at a candlelight vigil at the Breezy Point football field.

People came to pray there whom he has seen for years at the grocery store in the gated community but has never spotted at Sunday services. But then almost everybody, all 2,500 residents of Breezy Point, came to the memorials at the church. All those familiar faces, now sad, were looking to the solidly built priest with the ruddy cheeks.

Back-to-back services

He held back-to-back memorials on the second Saturday after the attacks for Peter Mulligan, 27, and Pat Sullivan, 32. They both had worked at Cantor Fitzgerald at the World Trade Center.

Just last May, the priest had presided at the wedding of Mulligan, who grew up in Breezy Point. So he had a fresh vision of Peter's winning smile.

"He was a beautiful boy, and his bride too," Connelly says, closing his eyes, as if he could go back to May in September.

It has been terribly bleak for Connelly to have known the dead as children, to have watched them grow up and marry and, now, to imagine them gone forever.

Still, he has stood in front of the people and prayed for good. Sometimes he quotes Scripture in homilies. But for this "worst hour of the worst year of the worst season," he has looked for spirituality in the words of poets and historians: Keats, Thucydides, Tennyson.

For Peter Mulligan, he reached to Wordsworth:

"Ships, towers, domes, theaters lie open to the fields and to the sky; all bright and glittering in the smokeless air."

"These are the words of William Wordsworth's `Upon Westminster Bridge,'" Connelly told the thousands of mourners spilling out of a church that was built to seat 600. "If it were `Upon Brooklyn Bridge,' he could really have said: `Ships, towers, twin towers that were wonders of the world.' Now they are gone. Magnificent as they were, they were insignificant compared to one lost life."

Homilies get harder

It was easy, he says, to write that first homily for Mulligan: "But the second, third, fourth ... they came harder. To address the really same audience, to describe what we were all feeling differently but say the same thing, was nearly impossible."

To get beyond all the sorrow, Connelly prays. And prays. His hands are shaking, but he is not broken.

"You have to push things away. You have to push away the sickness ... and go on," he says.

He can't tell the mothers to be happy that their children are now with God. He heard one woman get angry when such a thing was suggested. "She wanted her son with her," the priest says.

So what does he say to all of the mothers and the widows and the friends of friends?

"The best thing," he says, "is to get them thinking of something else."

Geraldine Baum is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing Co. newspaper.

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