‘Family’ Ties

Monsignor Clement Connolly standing in Holy Family Church, where he’s worked for the past 35 years. He’s officially retired, but still handles many spiritual duties. Photo by Skye Hannah

THERE are certain people who have achieved such celebrity that they are known by one name or one set of initials.
There’s Beyoncé. MJ. LeBron. Elvis.

I’ve discovered Holy Family Catholic Church has its own person who, to many parishioners, needs only needs one name — Monsignor.

This one-name wonder is Monsignor Clement Connolly, and after being priest and now spiritual director at Holy Family since 1984, he’s earned the right to go by one name.

A monsignor, by definition, is an honorary title, usually given by the pope for distinguished service to the church.
Monsignor Connolly was secretary to two cardinals of Los Angeles before he became priest at the 5,200-family church on Fremont Avenue in 1984.

“Monsignor has become his name. That’s what people call him,’’ said Sharon Valenzuela, who worked as housekeeper and personal assistant to Connolly for 26 years.

He officially retired in 2010, but “retired’’ belongs in quotes. He still says Mass, and when he does, it’s always well-attended.
One reason, according to everyone I talked to, is his homilies. Born in 1940 in Limerick, Ireland, Connolly still talks in a bit of a brogue, and the YouTubes I’ve seen of his homilies show how he shapes his deep intellect and fashions it for his congregation.
“People love his homilies,’’ said Marlene Moore, head of community giving, who has been in the parish for 25 years. “He is the type of preacher where you sit in the pews and people feel, “Oh, my gosh.’’ He’s talking right at me. Some people can be intimidating. He’s so welcoming.’’

“So many people when he speaks at a funeral will say afterwards — even if they are not of our faith —
‘I want to know more about that church and about that man,’ ‘’ Valenzuela said.

I felt that welcoming spirit when I talked with him. He looks at you and leans forward and gestures in a welcoming manner that pulls you in to where you feel like the center of the discussion.

“When people come to see a priest, you have to give them time to be with me,’’ he said. “Everyone who comes in to talk to me is a blessing.’’

He said his thoughts when talking with people is “teach me.’’

But, as he points out, “I’m not perfect. I’m not the church. The people are at Holy Family. If you lose that, you lose the whole soul of Holy Family.

“The mantra of our church is found in a song, ‘All are welcome. We build a place where all are welcome.’ ’’
Valenzuela recalled how he went door-to-door to get funding during a capital funding  campaign.
Connolly is glad those days are over.

“I have the best life. I don’t have to worry about buildings or paychecks,’’ he said. “I do Masses, funerals and weddings. I do the spiritual things. I get to meet people. I like that.’’

Connolly admits that “the Irish in my blood’’ has stimulated his love for travel. He’s been to seven continents, and spent a month in Calcutta, serving as chaplain to the sisters and Mother Teresa.

“Every morning, the priest would have his one egg and Mother would come by and we’d talk for 10 minutes or so,’’ he recalled.
Connolly has supported cultural changes in the parish. Valenzuela notes that he supported a woman for administrator and he gave his support to a ministry for those people who are LGBTQ.

“People are more educated today and they are looking for credibility and accountability in the church,’’ he said. “People have questions and are not afraid to ask them. It’s not like the old days where questions about the faith were wrong.’’
Connolly notes that one new factor in the church is the “emerging woman.’’

“Not everyone wants to hear it, but it is a fact,’’ he said.

During his tenure as pastor, the Catholic Church has had to deal with clerical abuse.

“It’s a huge question,’’ he said. “The disillusionment of people is the same that I have.’’

But if people have lost faith — temporarily or permanently — the members of Holy Family haven’t lost faith in their Monsignor.

“There was a time when I began to question my faith,” said Dr. Elizabeth Taylor,  who was supported by Connolly when she suggested starting a support group for Lesbian and Gay Catholics. “When Monsignor arrived at Holy Family and I listened to those intellectual homilies, the thought that kept running through my mind was, ‘If this brilliant man believes, then maybe there’s something to this.’ ’’

My email is ALippman@gavilanmedia.com. Please write if you have any story ideas about people, places or things of interest to South Pasadena residents.