Maryknoll missionary and central Illinois native Fr. William J. Donnelly dies

MARYKNOLL, N.Y. – A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 14, at the Maryknoll Mission Center here for Father William J. Donnelly, MM, a missionary priest born and raised in central Illinois who served in Guatemala for decades.

Father Donnelly, 90, died on Sept. 6, 2023, in the assisted living unit at Maryknoll. He had been a Maryknoll priest for 58 years.

Father Kevin Hanlon was the scheduled principal celebrant and homilist for the funeral Mass in Maryknoll’s Queen of Apostles Chapel. Burial was to follow in the Maryknoll Society Cemetery.

Born Aug. 28, 1933, in Bloomington to Edward B. and Bernadine (Ulbrich) Donnelly, he attended St. Cecilia School in Peoria and Peoria High School. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at Bradley University before serving in the U.S. Army for two years.

After working as a commercial artist for a short time, Father Donnelly entered Maryknoll in Glen Ellyn in 1958. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and master’s degree in religious education from the Maryknoll School of Theology in Ossining, New York, and was ordained in Maryknoll on June 12, 1965.


Father Donnelly was assigned to the Maryknoll Mission Region in Guatemala, where he worked for the next 24 years. After language study, his first assignments was to a parish in Chiantla. In 1971, Father Donnelly was named director of the Center for Integral Development for the Diocese of Huehuetenango and pastor of the Cathedral Parish in that city. In 1979, he moved to Jacaltenango and from 1980 to 1990 he served as pastor in Barillas. It was an area of great conflict during the worst years of Guatemala’s civil war, during which hundreds of his parishioners were killed.

He mastered Spanish and also learned to converse in the dialect of the Mayan communities he served.

Affectionately known as “Padre Willy,” he would travel for hours by foot or on horseback to celebrate Mass, baptisms, and marriages. Father Donnelly would later reflect on the great privilege it was to serve there and bring comfort to wonderful people who were living in fear and confusion.

Maryknoll Father Bill Donnelly holds a copy of his graphic novel “The Life of Archbishop Fulton Sheen” in this Catholic Post file photo from 2011.

Father Donnelly returned to the U.S. in 1990 to work in Maryknoll’s development departments based in Houston, Texas, and at Maryknoll. He would return to Guatemala as regional superior for Central America and later as assistant to the regional superior of Latin America.

After returning to the U.S. in 1994, Father Donnelly served in mission education and promotion. He would also put his artistic skills to work in mission, helping to create cartoons to teach low-literacy audiences about hygiene, first aid, cooperatives, and catechism. He also created graphic novels detailing the heroes and heroines of the Maryknoll order as well as other church figures, including Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

He was re-assigned to the Latin America Region in 2013, and in ensuing years would split his time between serving in the U.S. and Guatemala, where he would help in large parishes.

Father Donnelly was granted senior missionary status in 2017 and assisted at parishes near the U.S.-Mexico border. He returned to Maryknoll in 2021.

Father Donnelly is survived by a brother, Michael, of Peoria, and a sister, Patricia (Butch) Kliver, of Omaha, Nebraska. A sister, Dona Sutter, preceded him in death.

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