Bishop Thomas Donellan, founding pastor of the Catholic community of Saint-François-Xavier, dies at 91

Monsignor Thomas Donellan Jr. visits a parishioner from the Catholic Community of Saint-François-Xavier. (Courtesy of the Catholic Community of Saint-François-Xavier)

Monsignor Thomas J. Donellan Jr., founding pastor of the Catholic community of St. Francis Xavier in Hunt Valley and a respected leader in pastoral planning in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, passed away on September 24 at St. Martin’s House for elderly people in Catonsville, surrounded by the Little Sisters of the Poor. He was 91 years old.

Bishop Donellan’s long tenure at St. Francis Xavier began in 1988, when he was appointed coordinator of the new “Hunt Valley Independent Mission,” which held weekend Masses at the Hunt Valley Inn. Its mission was to develop the mission into a full-fledged parish, meeting a need due to explosive growth in northern Baltimore County.

Bishop Donellan led the parish from its inception as a hotel mass station until its incorporation as a parish in May 1992 and until the construction and relocation of the parish to its present home at Serenity Farms on Cuba Road in January 1998.

“Father Tom was a visionary,” said Father J. Kevin Farmer, current pastor of the Catholic community of St. Francis Xavier, who first met Bishop Donellan while attending weekends in St. Francis Xavier at the start of his ministry. “This parish was the innovative parish 30 years ago.

Father Farmer said Bishop Donellan had a knack for attracting young families with new ideas, including his out-of-class approach to youth and family ministry and a parish-based model of stewardship. He also underlined the importance of popular participation at the parish level. Its motto has always been “God is the first”.

“Father Tom was ahead in many ways,” said Father Farmer, who will deliver the homily at Bishop Donellan’s funeral mass on September 30 in Saint-François-Xavier. “Between secular society and COVID-19, we are all trying to figure out how to do church differently. Father Tom had it all figured out.

Monsignor Thomas Donellan Jr. is pictured as a young priest in this undated photo. (CR file)

Born in Baltimore, Bishop Donellan attended Holy Spirit Elementary School in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, and St. Dominic Elementary School in Baltimore. After graduating from Loyola High School in Towson, he entered St. Charles Minor Seminary in Catonsville and eventually attended St. Mary’s Seminary in Roland Park.

He was ordained a priest on May 26, 1956 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, and every year for over 50 years he had gathered for mass and a meal with his former comrades from class to celebrate their ordination. birthday.

Monsignor Donellan was appointed Director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for the Western Zone of the Archdiocese in 1962.

Over the years, he was associate pastor of Saint-Marc in Catonsville; associate pastor and later pastor of St. Peter the Apostle in Baltimore City; and pastor of Saint Michael the Archangel in Overlea.

After his work in these parishes, Monsignor Donellan served at the Catholic Center from 1978 as director of the Buildings and Properties Division, then from 1979 to 1988 as secretary of the Pastoral Planning Department before being invited to start the new parish in the Vallée de la Chasse.

Father Farmer said no matter what obstacles he faced in establishing the Catholic community of St. Francis Xavier – including a six-year legal battle to secure current ownership – Monsignor Donellan remained focused.

“A lot of people wanted to give up, but he knew that was where we all needed to be,” Father Farmer said. “He was brilliant at fundraising. He, like so many visionaries, surrounded himself with the right people to support his vision and make it a reality.

Judi Keys began working with Monsignor Donellan in 1988 as a volunteer typing ballots. The following year, when he opened an office in the basement of Monsignor O’Dwyer Retirement Home in Sparks, he offered him a job. She later became the administrator of the parish.

Keys remembers moving offices several times, including the basement of an art store and the Executive Plaza. She took him to Mark Downs Furniture to buy chairs so they could have seats for Mass. At one point Keys would send out postcards every Monday to let people know where mass would be held the following weekend, as sometimes the hotel they were using was booked. with weddings.

“Father Tom was such a good man – one of a kind,” Keys said. “He had such an influence on so many people, and I’m sure he didn’t even know how many. He was a very good friend.

Monsignor Thomas Donellan Jr. passed away on September 24 at the age of 91. (Courtesy of the Catholic Community of Saint-François-Xavier)

Keys worked with Bishop Donellan until his retirement in 1998. He remained pastor emeritus and returned to St. Francis Xavier to celebrate Thanksgiving eve and other masses. He moved from a local building to Mercy Ridge, where he served on the finance committee. He also volunteered at the Esperanza Center in Baltimore City.

“He loved to read and he loved to be with people,” said Keys, noting that Monsignor Donellan was a humble man who preferred to call himself “Father Tom” or “Tom” instead of “Monsignor Donellan”.

“He’s had more visitors than anyone at Mercy Ridge,” she said.

Daniel Medinger, former editor and associate editor of the Catholic Review, said Monsignor Donellan played a key role in putting the publication on a more solid footing after experiencing financial difficulties in the late 1970s and in the early 1980s. The priest was appointed vice-president of the Cathedral Foundation, the then-overseeing society of the Catholic Review, in October 1982. He helped stabilize the newspaper for 10 years, serving part of that time. while he was busy trying to start St. Francis Xavier.

“He was just a wonderful priest, and one of his priorities was to develop lay leadership,” Medinger said. “He loved the Catholic media and he was instrumental in restarting the Catholic review from a time when it was in trouble. “

Medinger noted that Monsignor Donellan had a vision and brought in people who shared that vision “and got them to join”.

“He was a big part of the reason I came to Baltimore,” Medinger said. “Everything he touched just worked.”

Bishop Donellan has also served on the Boards of Directors of Stella Maris, Good Samaritan Hospital and Thomas J. O’Neill Catholic Health Care Fund, Inc.

Mary Cohn, office manager at St. Francis Xavier, met Bishop Donellan in 1996 when her children were young. She said the priest welcomed and accepted people to where they were in their life of faith. His family got closer to Monsignor Donellan, and he even pronounced the blessing at his daughter’s wedding.

“He would let you go for a week without showing up for mass, but if you went for two weeks there would be a knock on your door,” Cohn recalls. “He wanted to make sure everything was okay if he didn’t see you. That’s the kind of person he was. We will miss him so much.

When his health declined in 2019, Monsignor Donellan moved to St. Martin’s Home.

Patricia Allshouse, who joined St. Francis Xavier in 1990 and began volunteering soon after, said people were traveling from all over the country to attend Bishop Donellan’s funeral.

“Tom was much loved in the community, and many of this original basement group have always kept in touch,” said Allshouse, now pastoral associate at the ward. “He changed many lives. His vision of a parish has always been that the church is not a building, but a gathering.

A visit, observation and vigil will be held on September 29 from noon to 8 pm at the Catholic community of St. Francis Xavier in Hunt Valley. The vigil will start at 7 p.m.

Archbishop William E. Lori will offer a funeral mass at 10:30 am on September 30, also at St. Francis Xavier.

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