The end of an era has come for St. John Neumann Catholic Parish in Irvine. Its founder and longtime pastor, Monsignor Colm Conlon, returned to his home country of Ireland on May 30, after 60 years of service in parishes in Southern California.
Fr. Jeff Droessler, pastor of St. John Neumann Church, made sure the 87-year-old priest was given a warm and sometimes tearful send-off from the parish he helped build, with multiple receptions attended by friends, clergy and parishioners who came to express their thanks and good wishes.
“He is a wonderful priest,” said Fr. Jeff. “He was founding pastor 44 years ago of this church in 1978. What a great example he’s been for me as a priest, especially his commitment to the people, which continued even well after he retired in 2009. He’s been an incredible presence.”
When trying to describe Msgr. Conlon, Father Jeff said, “He is introverted but very friendly. He likes being around people.”
LOOKING BACK ON 60 YEARS
Msgr. Conlon’s priesthood began more than six decades ago.
“I was ordained in 1959,” he said in an interview before he left. His appointments took him to parishes in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Lakewood, as well as Costa Mesa and Tustin.
“Then I learned that the bishop wanted me to start a parish in Irvine,” he said. “And in December of 1978, St. John Neumann was declared a parish.”
Groundbreaking for the church which is named after St. John Neumann, the first male canonized saint from the US, took place in 1980. The first Mass was celebrated there in late 1981. The church was officially dedicated in June 1982 with Bishop William Johnson, Archbishop Tomas Clavel and Cardinal John Krol from Philadelphia celebrating. It was the second parish to be established in Orange County.
“It was quite an undertaking,” said Msgr. Conlon of establishing the church. “I wouldn’t call myself a businessman, but God is good, and the people were great. The parishioners made the hard work light.”
Over the years he helped raised money for numerous new buildings, including a youth ministry building and a parish rectory.
“We can’t thank him enough for all he’s done,” said Fr. Jeff.
After his official retirement in 2009, Msgr. Conlon spent a few years in Laguna Woods.
“Then Monsignor Don Romito invited me to come back to St. John Neumann,” said Msgr. Conlon.
During his time there, he would visit the sick at Kaiser Permanente in Irvine two days per week, anoint the sick, distribute holy communion and provide pastoral care
to the patients. He would also celebrate Mass at the parish and regularly hear confessions.
Father Conlon has visited Ireland often, and as he’s gotten older his family in Ireland have urged him to come home. Then he had a fall that partially debilitated him, making it hard to walk easily.
“His siblings have been asking for many years for him to move back,” said Fr. Jeff. “It was a difficult decision. He loves being here. His siblings are very happy—their gain is our loss.”
He leaves a vital parish with approximately 4,000 registered families, and is “almost back to normal,” after the years of COVID lockdown, said Fr. Jeff.
After flying from Los Angeles to Dublin, Msgr. Conlon returned to live on the very farm he grew up on, which is located in the country near the town of Athlone in the County of Westmeath. His plan is to live there with his brother who was a priest from the Diocese of Plymouth in England. The farm once had cattle and sheep, but now it’s just cattle, he explained.
Msgr. Conlon has another brother, whose sons have taken over the cattle farm. He also has two sisters and his family includes “umpteen grandchildren,” said Msgr. Conlon.
“It’s bittersweet, looking forward to going home,” he said. “They’ve been asking me for years to go home. All of us are aged now.”
Msgr. Conlon said he has countless and wonderful memories from his years in Southern California.
“It’s been an honor and privilege being the founding pastor,” he said. “The people were so supportive and encouraging. COVID has been the biggest problem. But it’s everyone’s problem, no one was alone.”
He spoke highly of the bishops and priests he worked with – naming naming
Monsignor Romito, Father Jeff and Father Anthony Hien Vu.
“I always received great support from the bishops. I have very happy memories of them, and the fellow priests of the Diocese. I enjoyed it and was blessed with priests who serve here. It has been a wonderful, grace-filled ministry.”
In his last sermon to the parish of St. John Neumann, Msgr. Conlon spoke about the peace of Jesus, an inner peace – and wanted everyone to know that he feels that now as he ventures forth to a new chapter of life.