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Visionary priest Fr Leo Donnelly remembered as a pillar of the Port Macquarie parish community

Much loved: Fr Leo Francis Donnelly was remembered for his “big heart” and “big achievements”.

FATHER Leo Francis Donnelly’s life was big – he was a big man with a “big heart” and “big achievements”.

Lismore Bishop Gregory Homeming said Fr Donnelly exemplified megalopsychia – his body was not big enough to contain his soul. 

His capacity for goodness was so great it burst out of him, Bishop Homeming said.

“Such people do exist, but they are very rare,” he said. “And I met my first and only megalopsychos in Fr Leo Donnelly.”

Fr Donnelly died on January 23 after 68 years as a priest and 48 years as Port Macquarie parish priest. Almost 2000 people attended his funeral and another 10,000 viewed his Mass online.

He was known for his dry wit and unique way of phrasing things. 

When he was testing an idea, he would often say, “I’ll throw a few crumbs on the water and you never know, it might come back a sandwich”. 

In his time, Fr Donnelly had a lot of sandwiches come back to him.

Raised during the Great Depression, Fr Donnelly was born on November 17, 1927, in Gulargambone – a tiny rural village in Bathurst diocese.

His parents Joseph and Stella Donnelly raised a family of nine children who shared everything.

He had seven brothers – John (deceased), Keith (deceased), Noel (deceased), Raymond (deceased), Alan, Kevin and Geoff (deceased), and one much-loved sister, Margaret (deceased).

After a serious bout of rheumatic fever struck Leo when he was young, he was sent to convalesce with his mother’s sister Kitty Fischer, who lived in Port Macquarie.

He remained there to complete his secondary education at the convent school.

Classmate Pat McBriarty (nee Riordan) remembered young Leo as the only boy in a very small classroom.

“Leo worked hard with the help of the nuns and completed three years of study in one,” Mrs McBriarty said.

By the time he finished his schooling, Leo decided to join the priesthood.

He attended theological schools at St Columba’s College, Springwood, and St Patrick’s College in Manly, NSW, and Pontifical Urban College in Rome.

After nine years of theological studies, and having just turned 24, Fr Donnelly was ordained by Cardinal Furmasoni Bionch as a priest for Lismore diocese at Pontifical Urban College in Rome on December 21, 1950. 

His first celebrated Mass on Australian soil was in the chapel at the Brigidine Convent, Randwick, where his sister Margaret was a novice and his little brother Kevin was altar boy.

Arriving back in Lismore in 1951, he worked in Port Macquarie briefly as assistant priest before getting heavily involved in diocesan work as a bishop’s secretary.

While his parents were alive, Fr Leo spent all of his holidays and annual breaks with his family, which usually involved a non-stop drive of about 18 hours from Lismore to Gulargambone on what were, at the time, poor roads. 

When his parents died in the early 1970s, Fr Donnelly remained close to his family and kept in touch with a tribe of nieces and nephews – enjoying their company whenever he could.

“In every family there is an ‘anchor’ and Leo Francis was always ours,” his brother Kevin said. 

His nephew Matthew Donnelly said family events were never really ready until Uncle Leo arrived. 

“Uncle Leo had an authority about him – it wasn’t about him being a priest; or his physical presence or his intelligence; it was his unending kindness and compassion, and his ability to always see the good in every person,” he said.

Another nephew, Anthony Donnelly, described himself as “geographically lucky” to have been raised in Port Macquarie where he was able to spend more time with his beloved uncle.

“We knew him as ‘Leo, ‘the Rev’, ‘the big fella’ … Uncle Leo was big in every way – tall, big heart, big achievements,” he said.

“We all live within his achievements.”

On March 12, 1970, Fr Donnelly was appointed Port Macquarie parish priest – then a small, quiet coastal town of about 8000.

One of his first orders of business was to update the liturgy to conform to Second Vatican Council changes, including the priest celebrating Mass facing the congregation.

Parishioner and long-time friend Brian Tierney said Fr Donnelly had a “capacity to spot talent and to make use of it”.

“Fr Donnelly was one of the first parish priests to make use of the new ecumenical canons from the famous Vatican Council of the 1960s to involve the laity in his vision for future growth in Port Macquarie,” Mr Tierney said.

And Fr Donnelly’s vision evolved to encompass the whole community from pre-school to old age.

With the help of many in the parish, Fr Donnelly led the transformation of St Agnes’ Parish into an extensive range of services, facilities and education centres that touch thousands of people each day.

Realising many of his friends from his early days were getting older, Fr Donnelly sought to create a sustainable aged-care system for Port Macquarie.

Using his contacts, he negotiated for a parcel of Crown land to use for the construction of the parish’s first residential aged-care facility, Lourdes House.

In 1975, Clifton Rest Home, a private nursing home, came up for sale and, in a leap of faith, Fr Donnelly bought the property for it to become Lourdes Nursing Home.

Many more hostels, living villages, support centres and social justice services opened up under Fr Donnelly’s leadership in the ensuing years. 

Today, the parish is one of the largest providers of aged care in the region. 

Another side of his works came in Catholic education. He sat on many diocesan, state and national education committees and worked with people like Archbishop James Carroll, a leader in education himself.

Fr Donnelly looked beyond the civic obligation of schooling young people as a way to take their place in society to the sacred obligation of acquainting them with “the existence of that other world, the world of ultimate reality – God’s world”.  

Between 1970 and 2009, Fr Donnelly oversaw the growth of Catholic education in Port Macquarie from one school, St Joseph’s Primary, to the current six campuses – St Joseph’s Primary, St Agnes Primary, St Peter’s Primary, Mackillop Senior College, St Joseph’s Regional College and Newman Senior Technical College.

In 2018, about 4000 primary and secondary students and 850 children were educated through Port Macquarie’s Catholic schools and early-education childcare centres.

One of his favourite educational projects was the educational and training college Newman Senior Technical College – a vocational alternative for Year 11 and 12 students.

Former St Agnes’ education officer John McQueen said Fr Donnelly’s vision for the college was inspiring.

“Newman Senior College is now a multi-million-dollar facility that provides the best vocational educational and training in the country,” he said.

Along with education came Fr Leo’s love for social outreach, even saying in March of last year, “A real church is an outreach church”.

One example of his outreach is establishing a church on Lord Howe Island.

He successfully petitioned to be allowed to minister to the island and did so for two decades.

This ministry culminated in the construction of a church on the island and the island itself officially becoming part of the Lismore diocese within Port Macquarie parish. 

Current parish priest Fr Paul Gooley, a former assistant priest to Fr Donnelly, remembered his humility, telling of a time when Fr Donnelly, celebrating an anniversary in Lismore with all the diocesan priests, was upset to hear himself described by one of his peers as “Leo the builder”. 

“For him, it was not about the buildings; what was always more important in his mind was what happened ‘in’ the buildings,” Fr Gooley said.

“For as long as I knew Fr Donnelly, he always acknowledged that it was not just about him but it was also about the efforts of the many hardworking, dedicated and generous people who have been part of the life of the parish and the wider Hastings community.

“He found joy in following the will of God, meeting the needs of the vulnerable in our community, and in encouraging others to do the same.”

Federal Member for Lyne Dr David Gillespie said Fr Donnelly was an “exceptional man”, a “visionary parish priest” and “a distinguished community leader with a very long legacy of good”. 

“It is hard to quantify the impact that this one man has had on the local community of Port Macquarie,” Dr Gillespie said in a speech to Federal Parliament.

“He has literally moved mountains, including swamps and buildings, to build infrastructure to care for, educate and enrich the lives of many local people.”

In 2017, Fr Donnelly said he was an altar boy at the opening of St Agnes’ Church and was the first priest from Port Macquarie.

“I was only ever in two places, Port (Macquarie) and Lismore,” he said. “In that, I have been uniquely blessed and at the heart of that blessing are the people who have accepted me, encouraged me.”

But it was always Jesus Christ at the centre of his life.

Retiring on March 16 2018, Fr Donnelly said he could not think of a greater privilege than to be called to lead a faith community.

“What happens (at Mass) on Sundays, over all of those 68 years, has been the real engine room of this parish,” he said.

“That is where that gift of faith we received at our baptism reaches its full expression – worship around, and with, our Eucharistic Lord.”

Fr Donnelly spent his last year as emeritus parish priest, enjoying retired life at The Francis Retreat in Bonny Hills. His surviving brothers Alan and Kevin, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews and their families rest safe in the knowledge that he is at home in heaven with the Lord.

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