A Saint and a Sinner: The Rise and Fall of a Beloved Catholic Priest
By Stephen H. Donnelly
with Diane O’Bryan
Months before he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest at age 42, Stephen Donnelly took a vow of chastity in a ceremony before an audience of 250 that included his parents and other close family members. Hours later he drove to his girlfriend’s house and broke that vow. “I was a poster child for duplicity”, Donnelly says in his warts-and-all memoir. And the duplicity didn’t end there.
Donnelly had been introduced to cocaine in his early 20’s and by the time he was a priest and working in his first parish the drug was running his life. No one, not even the woman he loved, knew of his dependency. The need to support his habit led him to drain his savings and eventually to steal from church funds. In 2000, three years after his ordination, Rev. Donnelly entered rehab for the first time.
Donnelly calls his story one of repentance, regret, reflection and transformation. It’s also one of triumph. With help from many, he battled his cocaine and alcohol addiction and made his road to sobriety the cornerstone of his ministry at St. Patrick’s parish in Huntington, where he moved in 2010.
His years at St. Patrick’s were his “Rock Star” years, as he labels them. A popular addition to the staff from the start, he was a tireless worker and a compassionate voice in the parish and the community as heroin abuse took so many young lives. His efforts were widely recognized and applauded. But getting to St. Patrick’s wasn’t easy for him.
Donnelly doesn’t spare himself in telling his story and I found myself wincing on occasion as he’d recount – often in great detail – episodes that were certain to come back to haunt him. Clearly, Donnelly loves the church and loved being a priest, but he didn’t buy in to all the rules. Eventually that would cost him dearly.
Donnelly’s memoir is compelling. The book isn’t perfect, but early on I found myself rooting for him. From the time his cousin introduced him to cocaine and he thought almost immediately about finding a dealer, I was hooked.
Born in Queens in 1955, Donnelly was one of four children. The family moved to Deer Park in 1960, where in 1964 his world was rocked when his parents divorced. His father was a drinker with a wandering eye. His mother finally had enough when she found lipstick on a cigarette butt in the family car. Young Stephen became the man of the house.
Donnelly’s relationship with his father deteriorated after that. As an adult, he would see in him the roots of his own problems with dependency, and with women.
As a boy and a young man Stephen Donnelly was a model Catholic, going to Mass on Sunday, supporting the church financially, and eventually joining the Knights of Columbus. But the priesthood wasn’t part of the plan until in his mid-30’s he was “nominated” to do so. After much discussion and soul searching, he was accepted as a candidate in 1991.
When Donnelly’s drug abuse is discovered and he is sent to rehab he doesn’t immediately embrace it. In the book, he unflinchingly recounts his experiences, his arrogance going into the process, and his many stumbles and return trips to the rehabilitation facility. Over time, his commitment to the priesthood and to sobriety convinces his superiors that he’s ready to resume his duties as a priest, leading him eventually to St. Patrick’s.
Following his time in Huntington, Donnelly was transferred to Maria Regina in Seaford. An incident with a woman there would lead to his suspension from the priesthood. “Even though I had maintained my sobriety for 16 years, was celibate for 13 years and was making restitution on the money I stole, I was considered a wild card”, he writes.
In the end, Donnelly poses a question: “If I were the bishop would I have dismissed a priest with my past?” His response: Maybe.
The book raises many questions and even poses a few – there’s a list of Book Club Questions at the end.
Bob Keane is a former Newsday managing editor. He can be reached at [email protected]