From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

A life of priestly ministry: ‘the opportunities are endless for healing and affirming others’

by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register

(From the Aug. 14, 2001 edition of the Inland Register

Mass media in one form or another has been a huge part of Msgr. John Donnelly’s life, before priesthood and after.

Msgr. Donnelly retired this year after 43 years of priesthood serving the people of Eastern Washington.

He was born in Spokane and although his family moved to Wallace, Idaho for a time, they ended up returning to Spokane, where he attended St. Augustine Parish and School.

He reminisced about his life and ministry during a recent interview in the Inland Register offices.

So what sparked his vocation to priesthood?

“The one thing that I still remember was the impact of the movie The Keys of the Kingdom, a novel and, later, a film starring Gregory Peck, about a Catholic priest who served long years as a missionary in Asia.

As a result, the monsignor considered becoming a missionary himself. But then came another media influence: the then-editor of the Inland Register, Father Terence Tully, whom he called “the crucial influence” on his vocation.

John Donnelly was enrolled at St. Augustine School; Father Tully was newly ordained, assigned as assistant pastor in the parish and editing the diocesan newspaper.

“I’ve known (Father Tully) since I was 10 years old,” said Msgr. Donnelly. He preached at my retirement party,” he laughed.

Father Tully is now 86 years old.

Father Tully arranged a trip for a group of St. Augustine students to visit St. Edward Seminary, in Kenmore, just outside Seattle, for a vocation day. “An overnight train ride. That was a big deal, at that age,” said Msgr. Donnelly.

At the age of 14 Msgr. Donnelly entered St. Edward Seminary. After high school, college and four years of theology studies he was ordained a priest on May 24, 1958, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes in Spokane. Father Tully vested him.

It was also Father Tully, along with the then-managing editor of the IR, who convinced the late Bishop Bernard Topel to send the newly-ordained Father Donnelly to journalism school, with an eye toward working on the Inland Register.

“I had been editor of the seminary magazine, The Harvester,” Msgr. Donnelly said. “I had won an essay contest or something in the seventh grade. The day I was ordained the bishop announced I would go to the best journalism school I could find and get a degree in journalism.”

That meant the University of Missouri — “In those days, if you wanted to teach journalism, you went to Columbia. If you wanted to be a journalist, you went to the University of Missouri” — where he completed his bachelor’s degree in a year and a stint in summer school.

“I was the only apparent Catholic on a campus of 14,000 students,” Msgr. Donnelly said. “I used to wear my collar for spite,” he laughed.

After journalism school he returned to Spokane and took over the Inland Register from Father Tully. He also served as assistant pastor in his old parish, St. Augustine.

In 1962 he received an appointment to be director of the Bureau of Information for the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington, D.C.

The Bureau “was for secular media — more of a public relations department,” he described it. That meant assisting the secular media as they tried to cover church matters.

“One morning I got a call from the New York Herald Tribune: ‘What kind of special ceremonies does the church have for burying a president?’ And that’s how I found out Kennedy died,” in 1963.

“At his funeral I helped coordinate the pool of cameras,” said Msgr. Donnelly. “I was about 10 feet from John-John when he gave his famous salute.”

The office was busy trying to prepare secular journalists for the advent of Vatican II. Msgr. Donnelly’s predecessor had quit, because “his august superiors at the National Catholic Welfare Conference didn’t think that (the Council) was going to be all that important. So he resigned in protest.”

They helped prepare materials, helped prepare the press. “It was a huge operation, to cover the Council,” though of course with virtually no funding.

At the resignation, “I laughed. I thought it was hilarious. Then three weeks later I got the assignment,” he said.

Part of the problem was that many people thought the Council would be over quickly — “everyone thought it would be one session,” he said.

In June 1964 his life changed again — again, involving mass media. He became a wire correspondent of National Catholic News Service — now Catholic News Service — covering Vatican II.

“It started out awful,” he said. “Everybody and his brother started becoming a spokesman” for the Council. “Then the Vatican decided they wanted a spokesman, and they got the best, Father Ed Heston, a Holy Cross priest from Notre Dame. He not only could speak Latin, but he could write it — in shorthand.”

Father Heston’s press briefings were so well-done that “other language groups were coming” as well as the English-speaking journalists.

Msgr. Donnelly sent his news back to the U.S. in telegraphic code. “We did a report of record, a New York Times of the Vatican Council,” he said, called the Council Daybook.

His advantage was that he lived with some of the people who were influential in the workings of the Council. Father “Hans Kung sat on our back porch, writing his book The Church, instead of going to Council sessions as perhaps he should have.”

Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray was another key Council figure with whom Msgr. Donnelly became familiar. He called the Jesuit “one of the finest men I’ve ever met. He spent years trying to get the Church to accept (the document), finally ended up triumphing at the Council. In the meantime, he was on the index for a long time.” In time Msgr. Donnelly would interview both Father Murray and Father Kung.

The priests working on the Council trusted him, he said. “I made it clear that I would take nothing out of the house without their permission. That system prevailed throughout my time in Rome. I could get all kinds of leads that way.”

Another story he ended up covering was the Israeli Six-Day War. He helped bring relief supplies to Palestinian refugees and ended up filing 18 stories from those four days.

He was in Rome for a time of great transition — not only the Second Vatican Council, but also the transition in pontificates between Blessed Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI.

Blessed Pope “John XXIII was my hero, of course, one of the greatest popes we’ve ever had, I think,” Msgr. Donnelly said. He wrote a book, excerpting writings of the pope, “a quote for every day of the liturgical year, Prayers and Devotions from Pope John XXIII,” with great assistance from the pope’s secretary. (The book is now out of print.)

Msgr. Donnelly also liked Blessed Pope John’s successor, Pope Paul VI.

“Why? His position in the Church is almost of martyrdom,” he said. “Here he is, following John XXIII, who sets the Council in motion, opens the windows and all kinds of scarecrows fly out. There’s a liberal movement on, and then there’s a conservative reaction, and it’s getting to be a field of blood. And then John dies. And in the middle of that comes Pope Paul VI.

“For 17 years,” the monsignor said, it was as though Pope Paul was “on a crucifix, pulled by the liberals and the conservatives, and he managed to keep the Church together. He’s a great unsung hero.”

Msgr. Donnelly stayed in Rome for two years after the Council concluded. He was given the title monsignor in June 1967. He returned to the Spokane Diocese, where he once again became editor of the Inland Register, which Father Tully had been editing — again — while Msgr. Donnelly was away.

Msgr. Donnelly was also working in parishes as he worked on the paper.

At that time, “we were trying to make it an independent paper, open to the bishop’s criticism but able to print by our judgments. Very reluctantly, Bishop Topel went along with it. I really admired (him) for allowing that atmosphere. It was a very difficult step for him, I’m sure.”

The bishop was not inclined to change his mind once he had made a decision, but realized that “he had sent me for professional training and I was trying to do a professional job,” Msgr. Donnelly said.

Besides the IR he also was assigned to parishes — the first, Deer Park, where the church was built during his pastorate.

He was rector of Bishop White Seminary next, from 1969-74.

Those were hard years for seminaries, but not without their moments. When campus protesters were killed at Kent State, Ohio, students at Gonzaga gathered in protest, but the Bishop White seminarians spent the night in prayer in the Perpetual Adoration chapel. “I was very proud of them,” he said.

Several priests were ordained from those years, including the new abbot of Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon, Abbot Nathan (though then, Gary) Zodrow.

Seminary formation in those days placed a “great deal of emphasis on personal identity, how to express yourself, communicate with others. Aspects of community, which are so crucial to preaching the Gospel,” he said. It wasn’t easy or simple. “It required a great deal of bravery from the kids. It would have been easier to set up a set of rules and keep them strictly, but it wouldn’t have worked, not for the graduates of the ’60s.”

He was assigned to the Colville parish in 1974. At that point he had to step down from editing duties at the IR — the commute was simply too much.

From Colville he moved to Assumption, Spokane, in 1976, where he built his second church.

The Assumption church was built largely with volunteer labor, almost entirely built by local parishioners who donated brick work, designs, excavation, and other services.

In 1987 Msgr. Donnelly moved to Clarkston and Holy Family Parish. From there, in 1990, he moved to St. Anthony in Spokane, the parish from which he retired this year.

What’s the best part of being a pastor?

“I suppose, from a personal standpoint, there is as much affirmation as you need to keep you going as a person. And at the same time, the opportunities are endless for healing and affirming others. That’s exciting.

“There’s really no worst part,” he said. “Some parishes are more challenging that others.”

At his retirement party he talked about his observations of life as a priest.

“Before I became a priest I had fears of a life of loneliness, showing that God has a sense of humor,” he said. “I haven’t been lonely a day in my life as a priest. As a matter of fact, I sometimes long for solitude.”

He will get a bit of that in retirement. As has been so often the case, communication media play a big part in his plans: he intends to write a book, a novel, about his experiences at the heart of the church over the years. He plans to travel as well, “but I’ve been doing that all along,” he laughed.


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