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Fr Leo Donnelly remembered, a life celebrated for a thousand different reasons

Living presence: Father Leo Donnelly’s influence on the Port Macquarie community will be felt for generations to come.  Photo: Darrell Nash

A HUMBLE man who lived his life in service of God and others – this was how Fr Leo Donnelly was remembered at his Requiem Mass on Friday, February 1.

More than 1500 people attended his funeral and it was broadcast live on St Agnes’ parish website and streamed on Facebook, with viewers as far as the United States and the United Kingdom paying their respects to Fr Donnelly.

Fr Donnelly was parish priest of St Agnes’ parish for 48 years, from 1970 until his retirement in March 2018.  

He died aged 91 at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney on January 23.

The Requiem Mass was concelebrated by Fr Paul Gooley, along with the Lismore Bishop Gregory Homeming, and 24 other priests including Fr Peter Wood who serves as assistant priest at Port Macquarie.

Two of Fr Donnelly’s nephews, Matthew and Anthony Donnelly, delivered the eulogy and other family members participated in the service through the Prayers of Intercession and bringing forward the offertory gifts.

Matthew remembered the special and poignant place Fr Donnelly held in the hearts of his family, saying family events were never really ready until “Uncle Leo” had arrived. 

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

Anthony, who grew up in Port Macquarie, told anecdotes about Fr Donnelly’s humour and of other treasured times spent with his uncle.  

“I loved it when I got to drive Uncle Leo home after sharing a Sunday evening meal with our family – it was 25 minutes of one-on-one time spent in conversation with him about faith and the things that mattered,” Anthony said.

During the homily, Fr Gooley, reflected with affection to share a few insights into Fr Donnelly’s life as a priest, mentor and friend. 

He told of Fr Donnelly’s love of his family, the priesthood, the Port Macquarie community, Lismore diocese and of serving others as well as stories about his love of technology, learning, history, shopping, footy – Queensland and Melbourne – and his dog Shannon.

“Leo was a man of prayer; he was faithful to morning and evening prayer of the Church, the Eucharist and the Rosary,” Fr Gooley said.

Fr Gooley reflected Fr Donnelly had a devotion to Cardinal John Henry Newman, a man who once wrote, “God has created me to do Him some definite service”.

“He has committed some work to me, which He has not committed to another. I have my mission,” Cardinal Newman wrote.

“I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. 

“I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.”

Fr Gooley said those words were true of Fr Donnelly and his life, as it was true for everyone as they continued the mission of Jesus Christ.

“Like all of us, Leo had a mission in this life and, as Leo also had an interest in all things military, I can say to Leo ‘Well done good and faithful servant’, but I think it is appropriate to add, ‘Mission accomplished, Leo… stand at ease,’” he said. 

Bishop Homeming said Fr Donnelly’s impact on the community was shown through the diversity of people who came to pay their respects at his funeral.  

“Fr Donnelly was a driving force behind improvements to education, training, aged care, welfare and sport in the community,” Bishop Homeming said.

“I think part of his legacy is visible in the people here today; so many of the charitable works, the works of care and love are here because of him.

“Where he could find a need, he would do something and, correctly, it wasn’t simply for Catholics, it was for everybody.

“I was impressed by the humility of the man. 

“There was no sense in him that anything he did was about himself. 

“He was just helping people who needed to be helped, and did what he could.”

St Agnes’ parish chief executive and close friend Adam Spencer said Fr Donnelly was a great loss to the community.

“If you think about what he’s achieved in the areas of aged care, early education, vocational education and training, community services, a whole range of things… I think he’s without peer in all of Australia to have achieved what he’s achieved in all of those domains,” Mr Spencer said

“An outstanding leader of the church and the wider community, he was a great man, an exemplary pastor and friend – he will be sorely missed by all of us.”

As the funeral procession left St Agnes’ Church, it was led by a police escort and the Port Macquarie Vanguard (national Drumline champions), which was made up of students from the combined St Agnes’ parish schools.

Hundreds of people including St Agnes’ parish parishioners, staff, teachers, students, and community members formed an honour guard that extended along Hay, William and Horton streets, to pay their respects to a beloved man and parish priest.

As emeritus parish priest, Fr Donnelly spent his last year living peacefully at The Frances Retreat, owned by the parish and managed by friends, Joady and Peter Castles.   

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