A big change is in store for one of the Lower East Side’s most venerable religious institutions. After 28 years, Father Neil Connolly will be leaving St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Grand Street due to an Archdiocese retirement rule. He turns 80 in November. The news was announced to parishioners a few weeks ago. Connolly’s successor is Rev. Andrew O’Connor from Holy Family Church in the Bronx.
In a phone conversation Friday, Connolly explained that he’ll be taking on a new role as senior pastor at St. Francis de Sales on East 96th Street. The transition will happen in July. Connolly has been a fixture on the LES since 1985 guiding the parish through a time of breathtaking change in a gentrifying neighborhood.
St. Mary’s, founded on Sheriff Street in 1826, is one of the oldest Catholic parishes in new York. It has been a center of Latino life on the Lower East Side for six decades, although the demographics within the church have been changing for some time. When he arrived in the mid-80’s, Connolly confronted a range of social problems, including violence, drugs and poverty. Connolly has been a vigorous advocate for low-income housing. For many years, he stood with residents fighting for low-income housing within the Seward Park Mixed-Use Development project. Last year he reluctantly supported a compromise proposal.
Today, Connolly acknowledged, the LES is “not the melting pot” it once was, “the mix is changing.” His congregation has lost around 100 members in recent years, as some families have been forced to move due spiraling living costs. Connolly said he’s also witnessed the parish becoming older, since second generation Americans cannot afford to stay in the neighborhood. These days, there are more residents from the cooperatives on Grand Street, as well as Chinese congregants. Through all of the changes, he said, “the church has played a vital role in the community.”
Rev. O’Connor, 52, is already familiar with the LES, having spent time at St. Mary’s after he was ordained years ago. In the Bronx, he has made headlines for innovative programs in the Castle Hill community. He’s been growing hops in the church garden for Bronx brewery, and getting members of the congregation involved in the endeavor. O’Connor also has a clothing line called “Goods of Conscience,” made by Mayan Indians in Guatemala. It’s become a favorite of celebrities such as Cameron Diaz. The project creates jobs in the Bronx and funds an anti-domestic violence program.