Two of Dorchester's most storied and vibrant Catholic parishes have new leadership this month. Rev. Sean Connor, a 42 year-old former police officer who became a priest at age 35, has taken charge at Neponset Avenue's St. Ann parish. And in Lower Mills, Fr. Vincent Daily, 47, who began his priestly career as a curate at St. Gregory's in 1990, has succeeded the man who was his first pastor, Monsignor Paul Ryan.
The pastors begin their duties at a pivotal moment in the neighborhood's parochial history. A new, central grammar school system - Pope John Paul II Academy - will be launched this fall at five existing school campuses, including Lower Mills and Neponset Ave. Dorchester pastors will no longer have direct responsibility for any of the grammar schools, which will be run centrally by a new administrative office. Put another way, the pastors will no longer have to agonize each year over how to keep their parish school from closing in the face of dropping enrollment or deferred maintenance.
At right: Rev. Sean M. Connor
"The [St. Ann] school couldn't have survived another year," says Fr. Sean Connor. "The academy is going to feed our parishes for the next 100 years. It's an exciting time. We have to all work together. We're not here to rule over people. We're here to serve them and give the best we can."
Both Connor and Daily - like their counterparts at neighboring parishes - will continue to serve as spiritual leaders for the school community. On Friday, Fr. Daily helped to preside over a year-end Mass at St. Gregory's Gymnasium, where future Pope John Paul II students received prizes and scholarship money for their achievements over the last year. Still, it's clear that the academy system will free men like Connor and Daily up to focus more on the broader needs of the whole parish.
Connor, who also serves as the chaplain for the Boston Police Department, refers to it as "spiritual traffic control."
"Dozens of people call every day and many of them just ask me to just pray with them on the phone," said Connor. "It's easy, but just like with road traffic, it should only be done by trained professionals. I'm not in favor of flagmen!"
Connor, who grew up in Marshfield, can trace his roots directly to St. Ann parish. His grandparents, emigrants from Ireland's County Galway, settled in the Neponset parish nearly 100 years ago and he spent some of his childhood days visiting at their Pope's Hill home.
Connor describes himself as a "seasoned" - as opposed to a "delayed" - vocation. He worked for 15 years as a police officer in Marshfield before he finally awoke to his real calling, which he says he first recognized during Pope John Paul II's visit to Boston in 1979. Connor's course changed dramatically when his father, a longtime Milton police officer, died in 1981 when he was just 17 years old.
"I got toughened and angry and I decided to become a cop and save the world. Little did I know that it had already been saved. It took me 15 years to understand that," Connor says.
His police training proved to be an asset. Just a year after his ordination, Connor was plucked from a Weymouth parish to serve as a "delegate" - or special assistant - to Cardinal Sean O'Malley. Among his assignments over the last six years has been to direct church investigations into allegations of abuse by priests within the Archdiocese and to work with families who had been victimized.
The work has affected Connor deeply. In an interview, Connor extends a personal apology to the parish, which was once home to a "bad priest who hurt a lot of people." Connor says he knows some of the victims and hopes to work with them during his time here.
"The heroes of this have been the victims who spoke up here," said Connor. "This has been a dark time in our society's history and in the church's history. But it's also been a graced time, when people who had held these dark secrets came forward."
Connor was also greatly influenced by his chief mentor, the late Monsignor Bill Francis, former pastor of Holy Family Parish in Dorchester's Dudley triangle area. Connor was a frequent help to Francis - and to Sr. Rita Brereton, who helped Francis to run the parish. Connor assisted Francis - who was also the BPD chaplain - nearly every day during his final two years of life.
"I think of Bill and Rita all of the time and about how much they loved God's people," says Connor. "It's a part of why I wanted to come here. Both (Fr. Daily) and I begged to come to Dorchester. I lobbied for it, because these are my kind of people. It fits."
Daily, a 47 year-old Belmont native, can track his local roots back even further than Connor. One of Daily's grandparents is descended from the Vose family of Lower Mills, which lived on the Milton side of the river in the late 17th century.
Like Connor, though, most of Daily's clan is derived from the west of Ireland. And his relatives have included three Catholic bishops, including his father's brother--Bishop Thomas Daily -- who was the bishop of Brooklyn, NY. His mother's brother was Bishop Ed O'Leary from Portland, ME.
At right: Rev. Vincent Daily
Daily's most celebrated relative locally is his sister Connie, whom most Catholics of a certain age know as Daily's altar server on the televised Masses which Daily frequently celebrates on the Archdiocese's cable station. Daily's older sister, Eileen, is a professor of Theology at Loyola University in Chicago.
A die-hard hockey fan and a veteran of several Greater Boston parishes, Daily has also served as the diocese's spiritual director at the Chancery in Brighton. He spent four years in Rome earning a doctorate in Theology and is an expert in the life of the American worker's rights activist and theologian Dorothy Day, who is presently being considered for sainthood.
Coming back to Dorchester to lead St. Gregory's - his first job as a pastor - is an opportunity that Daily has prayed for.
"I knew in my heart of hearts I wanted to be a parish priest," Daily says. "Monsignor Ryan was a mentor to me. He was 110 percent dedicated to the parish. He had his eyes on nothing else.
"The appointment [as pastor] is six years, but if I had an opportunity, I wouldn't mind taking 27 [years] like the monsignor," Daily says.