Last November marked the 90th birthday of one of the greatest liturgical reformers of Catholic music that Australia has produced.
Richard Connolly was born in 1927 in Western Sydney and, in search of spiritual development, he undertook studies in theology in Rome from 1946 to 1950, and then returned home to attend the University of Sydney.
1955, Fr Ted Kennedy, then a young curate at Ryde, introduced Richard to James Phillip McAuley, poet and academic and recent convert to Catholicism. And so began an extraordinary partnership of words and music between James and Richard, which would profoundly change the Australian Catholic understanding of music in the liturgy, pre-empting in so many ways the outcomes of the Second Vatican Council.
Richard’s works were published originally in the Living Parish Hymn Book, which sold over a million copies in the 1960s.
Concurrent with his prolific life as a composer of liturgical music, Richard worked with the ABC from 1956, in the Education Department, then as Features Editor and later as Head of Radio Drama and Features.
Family and close friends gathered in Sydney from the four corners to celebrate Richard’s 90th birthday, but unfortunately Richard was taken ill and had to be content with a small party at Royal North Shore Hospital. Richard was also unable to attend a planned acknowledgement of his great contribution at St Mary’s Cathedral where his Mass of Our Lady Help of Christians was the musical focus of the liturgy.
Richard was out of hospital in early December and the Second Sunday in Advent shared a celebration of Richard Connolly’s life and work, held at the Church of Mary Immaculate and St Athanasius in the Parish of Manly Freshwater. Parishioners Richard and Cynthia Connolly took part in a memorable liturgical event, enhanced by Richard’s Hymn tunes, which continue to be a regular feature of choral choice at Manly.
With the permission of the Parish Priest, Fr David Taylor, the Responsorial Psalm for the mass was the quintessential setting of Psalm 23, My Shepherd is the Lord, by Joseph Gelineau, whose compositions of the Hebrew Psalms had been a great influence on Richard’s musical development.
Some of the Hymns for the mass were: Seek, O Seek the Lord, Song of Cosmic Praise and Richard’s personal favourite, By Your Kingly Power. As the reflection after communion, the digital age joined the pipe organ with a recording of Richard’s own voice singing the verses of Where there is Charity and Love while the organ accompanied the congregational refrain.
Sharing the duties at the keyboard were Mrs Kathleen Papallo OAM, long-time Parish organist, and Dr James Forsyth who had been the consultant for the installation of Manly’s magnificent Pipe Organ in the mid 1980s. Dr Jim’s postlude was a grand Fantasie on Camilla, Richard’s tune for the iconic hymn Help of Christians.
Fr David Taylor gave a special blessing during the celebration:
"Lord, bless your servant Richard. We give thanks for his vision and his talent, through which we have been able to glimpse your beauty and your perfection. May Mary, Help of Christians guard this land, and this man, until he sees his Master, face to face, gathered once more in everlasting light. Amen."
In her address to acknowledge Richard, Gina Marshall, cantor and music co-ordinator at Manly for over 45 years, detailed the significance of Richard’s ecclesiastical compositions, but called for the playing of a piece of music which Gina suggested may be even better known by all Australians. The recording began, with Richard’s own voice: There’s a bear in there, and a chair as well . . .
The reaction from those assembled was extraordinary, with the faces of young and old glowing both with recognition and admiration, while in the front row, a humble Richard Connolly bowed his head with a gentle smile, a tear and a touch of embarrassment.
Gina concluded, "Richard, whether it be for your Hymns for the Year of Grace or your compositions for the visit of Pope Paul the Sixth or the Play School Theme to mention only a few of your marvellous works, today, a grateful parish, a grateful Church, a grateful nation gives thanks for your 90 years and for all you have done to bring us closer to God through your music."