UTICA — Family, friends, parishioners and brother priests gathered at Historic Old St. John’s Church June 25 to celebrate the life and ministry of Msgr. William J. Donovan. A priest of the diocese for more than six decades, Msgr. Donovan passed away June 21. He was 88.
A native of Utica, Msgr. Donovan was born March 24, 1926. He graduated from Utica Catholic Academy in 1943, going on to attend St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s Seminaries in Rochester. He later earned a master’s degree from Utica College of Syracuse University.
Msgr. Donovan was ordained a priest of the diocese on June 3, 1950. His years of ministry included service as assistant pastor and pastor of St. John’s in Utica, pastor of St. John the Evangelist in New Hartford, administrator at St. Peter’s in Utica and pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Utica. He served as principal at Utica Catholic Academy from 1960 to 1967 and Vicar for Parish Life and Worship from 1987 to 1994. He was named Honorary Prelate to Pope Paul VI in 1971 and served as chaplain to organizations including the Knights of Columbus Utica Council 189 and the Utica Fire Department.
Msgr. Donovan’s funeral Mass was celebrated by Bishop Robert J. Cunningham and concelebrated by numerous brother priests, including Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Costello and Msgr. Donovan’s biological brother, Father Michael Donovan.
In his homily, Father Donovan acknowledged that death is a time of sadness, but that while tears are shed for ourselves, “we are overjoyed for Bill” who is now experiencing the joy of God.
“Almost two weeks to the hour of when he celebrated his 64th anniversary, he died quietly,” Father Donovan said. “It was probably the first quiet thing he had done in his whole life,” he added, to gentle laughter from the congregation. “He was not called ‘the big voice of the Mohawk Valley’ for nothing.”
Msgr. Donovan did not want to be talked about at his funeral, Father Donovan said, but rather he wanted the talk to be about priesthood.
“Bill was first and foremost a priest,” he said, and “very much a Vatican II priest.” Msgr. Donovan “believed the church was indeed the people of God and commitment to the church was commitment to God’s people.” A fellow priest had recently recalled Msgr. Donovan as “a straight shooter,” Father Donovan said, and “whatever was being discussed, his question always was, ‘How will this affect the people?’”
“He was a priest who strived to follow the way of the Lord,” Father Donovan continued. “Bill saw himself as one who had been called to priesthood. He knew that he was no better than anyone else, no holier than you or me, but he heard the call and responded.”
Father Sean O’Brien first met Msgr. Donovan in 1991, while on his pastoral year. He recalled Msgr. Donovan as “a towering figure, smart, compassionate,” someone who “took people and their concerns seriously but had a great sense of humor,” he said in a phone interview with the Sun after the funeral Mass. Father O’Brien later worked with and for Msgr. Donovan at Our Lady of Lourdes. Both extroverts, the two priests became close, Father O’Brien said. “He became my mentor. As a young priest I met another priest who was successful in the priesthood and who was an extrovert. His personality was a breath of fresh air for me,” Father O’Brien said.
Father Donovan closed his homily with the poem “The Beautiful Hands of a Priest,” a reflection on the role a priest plays in the life of the church:
“We need them in life’s early morning,
We need them again at its close;
We feel their warm clasp of true friendship,
We seek it while tasting life’s woes.
When we come to this world we are sinful,
The greatest as well as the least.
And the hands that make us pure as angels
Are the beautiful hands of a priest.”