Great sadness is felt by his family, parishioners and the local Port Macquarie-Hastings community at the passing of Father Leo Donnelly on Wednesday evening.
Father Donnelly passed away at 10.30pm at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney as a result of a stroke after being admitted to hospital to combat an infection.
Father D, as he was affectionately known, was Parish Priest at St Agnes’ Catholic Parish, Port Macquarie from 1970 until his retirement in 2018.
Father D’s vision and guiding influence saw the Parish grow into a leading aged care, disability services and educational provider in the Mid North Coast region.
He was renowned for his enterpreneurial and altruistic spirit focused on helping those in need, effectively touching the lives of thousands from the youngest to the oldest residents of the Port Macquarie-Hastings area.
Always humble, Father D credited his fellow parishioners with the achievements of St Agnes’ Parish.
“I can think of no greater privilege than to be called to lead a faith community, but with that comes the responsibility to do your very best for the people of that community,” he said at his retirement Mass in March 2018.
“Looking back, I think we can claim that, together, we have kicked a few goals, but none of it would have been possible without the loyalty, support and deep faith of this faith community.”
Current Parish Priest Father Paul Gooley said the community will feel the benefit of Father D’s legacy for many decades to come.
“Parish Priests like Father D are very rare. Parishioners know we were very lucky to have him,” Father Gooley said.
“He first recognised the need to care for the aged in our community with the opening of Lourdes House in 1973. Now St Agnes’ Parish is the largest provider of aged care on the Mid North Coast.”
“He also recognised the local need for vocational education by establishing the Vocational College in 1979. That idea evolved into the world-class facilities we now see at Newman Senior Technical College and is a great example to other providers of vocational education.”
“We will miss Father D’s visionary leadership, his wisdom and problem-solving ability, his no nonsense pastoral approach and his extraordinary ability to identify a need and reach out to so many in our community,” Father Paul said.
Over the 68 years he was a priest, Father D celebrated Mass around 20,000 times. He preached numerous homilies, always well prepared and concise as he adhered to his 7-minute rule.
Over nearly seven decades Father D baptised hundreds, he was there for the first communion of three generations and he spent countless hours hearing confessions and presiding over many reconciliation services.
He also shared the joy of many young couples as they exchanged their marriage vows and he was there when families suffered loss and grief to administer the last rites, comfort loved ones and perform Christian burials. In addition he provided many individuals with counsel and advice. He has led an extraordinary life of priestly service.
Although always modest and reluctant to receive any recognition for his contributions, he was the recipient of:
- The Croce Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (the Cross for the Church and Pontiff) in 2018 for distinguished service to the Church, which is only awarded by the Pope
- The Order of Australia medal in 2002 in recognition of service to the development of a broad range of social welfare and education programs under the auspices of the Catholic Church and to the community of Port Macquarie
- The Perkins Awards for Individual Excellence in Service in 2010
- Rotary District 9650, “Vocational Excellence Award” in 2007
- The Centenary Medal in 2003
- Hastings Citizen of the Year in 1991
Additionally in 2017, he was made a Life Member and Patron of the Port Macquarie Touch Football Association in recognition of his extraordinary effort to secure the Tuffins Lane sporting complex for the community.
Father D and his family have a long history with the Port Macquarie region. At an early age he came to Port Macquarie from Gulargambone to convalesce from an illness and always regarded Port Macquarie as home.
His mother Stella Fisher was one of the first students at St Joseph’s school and his grandfather was a local pilot.
The final word belongs to Father D.
“This Parish has always meant so much to me. I was an altar boy at the opening of the church. I was the first priest from Port Macquarie. I was only ever in two places, Port and Lismore. I have been uniquely blessed and at the heart of that blessing are the people who have accepted me, encouraged me, over those years. I am and always have been in your debt,” he said.
The date and details of Father Donnelly’s funeral are still to be finalised.