STILL RIVER -- Father Peter Connelly is not your average monk. A truly blue-collar priest, the Rev. Connelly has a current Class A tractor trailer license and hydraulic engineer's license to operate construction equipment and is just as likely to be found running a dump truck or doing road work as saying a decade of the Rosary.
The Rev. Connelly celebrated 25 years of ordination on Dec. 12, with nearly 500 friends and family in attendance at St. Benedict's Abbey in Still River. In addition, Rev. Connelly enjoyed a separate celebration with 300 guests in New York City, followed by Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral said by Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
None of this would have been predicted by Rev. Connelly's uncle, a priest himself, who once asked his mother, "I knew Peter was a problem child, but did you have to send him away to a monastery?"
His was a typical Boston Irish childhood, which Rev. Connelly calls "tribal." In those days, a family's geographical location was defined by their parish, and their entire social life was centered on church. "There were hundreds of kids, but you always moved with your own crowd."
Though raised in a devout family and educated in Catholic schools, Peter felt no special religious calling in his early years. Like many Boston boys in the mid-60s, he was intent upon becoming the next Bobby Orr. But one trip to the abbey as a teenager changed the course of history forever.
Born in 1952, the Rev. Connelly was Thomas and Nancy Connelly's third of nine. Borrowing a line from sports writer Bob Considine, he described his family background as "poor but Irish." All four grandparents emigrated by boat from Ireland. The Rev. Connelly moved with his family out of his original Oak Square, Brighton home, to Newton and ultimately Belmont as his father's second career as a car dealer expanded.
Having left teaching after his new bride asked him how he planned to support nine children on a teacher's salary, Thomas had no idea at that time that he would indeed become the father of nine. Tom Connelly helped initiate Norwood's famous "auto mile," selling Pontiacs, Saabs, Jeeps and the British MG. The Connelly family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle thanks to the boom in car sales after World War II. In fact, a car even played a part in Rev. Connelly's path to the priesthood.
As a freshman at Boston College High School, Peter was not actively seeking out more excuses to spend time in church. But his father made a deal with his kids that anyone attending morning Mass with him could get a ride to school in his brand-new, right off the line GTO Judge sporting the license plate MRGTO.
The Connelly boys thought it was worth going to Mass to make such a splash in the first weeks of school. But when their father overheard them verbalizing this sentiment, he wanted to make sure their priorities were straight. So he pulled up to the main entrance of BC High as 1,400 curious young men from all over Boston were walking past them to class, and Tom Connelly had his boys get out in front of the car and repeat after him, "It's only steel, glass, rubber and plastic." This was not exactly Peter's idea of a grand entry into high school, but the point was made and remembered to this day.
The Rev. Connelly's early years were filled with school, sports, work and running with his neighborhood buddies. He played hockey, sailed the Charles River Basin, sang in the Sacred Heart School Boys' Choir and rode the T without a second thought. But some of his exploits were not as innocent.
For example, every year more than 20 neighborhood kids would hang onto the back of an antique fire engine and ride to Commonwealth Avenue as the Boston Marathon was being run and take a position by the Newton City Hall, the first bump in Heartbreak Hill. Once there, Peter and his cronies would run just ahead of the marathoners, who by now were dragging their feet, as if they were beating them in the race, sometimes even questioning their determination. "Boy, if some kid did that to me ..." He left that thought unfinished. But in the fall of 1967, he was invited to spend a weekend at St. Benedict Abbey in Still River with family members.
Over the course of the weekend, Peter learned that any student attending the monastery school could have his own horse. Though Peter had just finished "Cooney" Weiland's famous hockey camp and turned over his share of the tuition money he'd earned, this was life altering information. Peter had never even been close to a horse, but it was the golden age of cowboys and Westerns, and to his 14-year-old heart, there could be nothing better than having his very own horse.
So, with no religious inspiration, Peter became a boarding student at the Abbey, which this city boy -- who'd never mucked a stall or milked a cow -- compared to the Garden of Paradise.
Though Abbey students were insulated from the chaos of the 1960s, including TV and movies, Peter and his mates were still normal school boys, occasionally getting into mischief. For example, every boy in his dorm somehow managed to post a door sign reading "Impact Area, Do Not Enter" on his door, lifted from the barbed wire fence guarding the firing range at Fort Devens. They also used to have fun with local kids by riding their horses to disrupt their party spots on warm nights by the Nashua River. And they discovered that herding milk cows around the pasture is not the same as working the ranges of the Wild West.
While completing a rigorous, college-prep education, the Rev. Connelly graduated with a sense of belonging to the agricultural world of a working farm, with 120 prize-winning registered Holstein dairy cows, each bearing the name of the saint upon whose feast day they'd been born. Haying, milking, working with horses, tractors and other heavy equipment had become second nature to him. He'd grown to admire the brothers' sense of purpose and heroic generosity and decided that he would like to join their ranks. A religious brother is not ordained, so he does not say Mass, but does live a consecrated, community life of service, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. But one does not just decide to join the ranks. There are several stages of formation.
The first stage lasts one year, during which a postulant asks if this is the life he wants. During the second stage, a novice wears the black cassock, while the monastery tests his character, to make sure he is a good match for a monastic life. It can take up to two years for the Abbey to decide if a novice is spiritually, emotionally and mentally equipped for community life as a brother.
It is noteworthy that the Rev. Connelly's probation lasted the entire two years. But he never looked back. Noting that the Still River community did not fit the stereotypical role many people presume of an Abbey -- full of stiff, holy rollers -- he credits his brother monks for creating a community of support for a life of service. The young monk loved being able to use his love of heavy equipment and the outdoors with a true desire to serve God; and he gave some examples of this unique meshing of worlds, secular and spiritual, academic and blue collar.
One instance occurred on a day he saw two monks repairing a roof. While swinging hammers and driving in nails, the two holy men engaged in a heated debate about the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, occasionally emphasizing a subtle point of philosophy with a vigorous shake of the hammer. Often, while immersed in the daily ritual of milking cows, monks could be heard conversing about Greek or Latin translations of scripture.
Because of the GI Bill, many of the monks came to Still River via nontraditional routes. Many spent their undergraduate years at Harvard before being called to a Catholic education in divinity or theology. Brother Dominic, who had grown up in a "great Gatsby" lifestyle on Long Island's gold coast, came to the abbey after being a Golden Gloves boxer at Harvard. Brother Paschal was about to join his brother's prestigious D.C. law firm before opting for monastic life instead. For 20 years, the Rev. Connelly was perfectly content to be a brother among these spiritual giants.
Then, one day, everything changed again. One of Rev. Connelly's jobs at the abbey was to travel all over the country, distributing devotional books. In fact, over the past 50 years, the abbey has distributed between 4 million to 5 million books. The goal is twofold: to spread the faith and to raise funds to continue the work of the abbey.
Going out two by two, a pair of brothers could reach up to 1,000 people per day. One particular day the Rev. Connelly found himself on Atlantic Avenue by the docks of Brooklyn, N.Y. While distributing books there, a man approached him, desperate to go to confession. the Rev. Connelly said the pain on the man's contorted face revealed a soul that was suffering a terrible burden. But a brother's authority limits him from hearing confessions, so the Rev. Connelly had to turn the man away. At that moment, he knew that he needed to become ordained as a priest to best serve those in need.
Having completed his undergraduate work at the abbey, Rev. Connelly earned his master's in theology at Providence College over the next two years. Then, a second at St. John's Seminary in Brighton, with a group of young seminarians with whom he commuted to classes until his ordination in 1987.
Since then, the Rev. Connelly has never questioned his decision. He explained that many people see priests as benefactors -- the shepherd, the pastor, the one who reaches out to demonstrate God's love and compassion. But he feels that he is the beneficiary. He witnesses so many extraordinary examples of true courage and strength in people's lives as they deal with sickness or some personal crisis.
Particularly unforgettable was his experience at ground zero shortly after the World Trade Center was attacked and destroyed. He literally climbed the pile which had been the towers to bring Holy Communion and a blessing to the heavy equipment operators as they sifted through the rubble for any trace of human remains.
"In the midst of all that wreckage and confusion, those workers were truly heroic. I am still close to many of them today." He has made friends all over the country and turned what began as a fundraising mission into an extended family.
The Rev. Connelly says Mass every day as a monk priest while looking for opportunities to do dirt work with a tandem dump truck and backhoe. He continues his pastoral work and promotes development with his many trips around the country to keep the abbey moving forward. He is also the abbey's tech man (he built the abbey's website and gets a call whenever a file disappears). He is also involved in the prison ministry, noting that the percentage of inmates attending Mass is exactly the same "on the outside" -- 10 percent.
Father's goals for the future include encouraging strong and holy vocations to the abbey, increasing the number of monks in a time when traditional families and culture continue to break down. He firmly believes that the principles of monastic life would heal so much of the strife and division in society.
Though the Rev. Connelly has lived a fulfilled life as a priest for the last 25 years, his biggest fear is that he won't be able to help people as much as they need as they face death, tragedy or suffering. But his faith has never wavered. "It always made sense to me."