Mgr Antony Conlon, who has died at the age of 72, was a man of infectious fun and profound friendship, who had a wonderful ability to bring his friends together. His quality of openness, while sometimes misunderstood by those who seek clerical detachment in their priests, was an essential part of his priesthood. His educated and amusing conversation on the widest spectrum of subjects, rarely “churchy”, opened the door to everyone. Even his well-known indignation and fury with those people and institutions he did not agree with (usually because they were opposed to the traditions of the Church or another firmly held principle), for all their bluster, were never unkind, and never quite lost sight of human absurdity.
Antony Francis Maximilian Conlon was born in Dublin on July 14, 1947. He was adopted as an infant, and only later in life rediscovered his large extended family of parents and siblings.
Educated in Ireland, Conlon went to London, where he found work in the Economist bookshop while discerning his priestly vocation. This grew at Westminster Cathedral, where he served Mass and Vespers each Sunday. It was at this time that he first got to know Viscount Furness, a great benefactor of the cathedral who later supported him as a student for the priesthood in Valladolid. Thanks to Lord Furness, Conlon was the only seminarian in his day to have a motorcar – an instant ticket to popularity.
Conlon’s years at seminary coincided with the post-Vatican II reforms. In his first year it was strictly cassock every day. By his second year it was jeans and casual shirts. This, as with the liturgical changes, left a mark on the young historian, who forever regretted the loss of tradition and the impoverishment of the Church’s culture.
After ordination to the priesthood in 1979, and curacies in Kingsbury and Marylebone, he studied for a Licence in Church History at the Greg. (Later, he would make a valuable contribution to the history of the Marian Restoration.) On his return he was curate at St Mary’s Cadogan Street, and then appointed parish priest of St Joseph, Bunhill Row. He restored the dilapidated church building to an Italianate splendour on a shoestring, and built up the liturgical and social life. A weekly sung (Ordinary Form) Latin Mass with Gregorian chant; Masses in the Old Rite (long before Summorum Pontificum); annual Quarant’ore Devotion; the May procession of Our Lady. An initially bemused congregation came to rejoice in this restoration of the Faith they had grown up with, and the ceremonies were conducted before a packed church. This was in tandem with race nights and Irish dancing, the keen young servers forming a bridge between altar and parish hall.
Part of the genius of his priesthood was an uncompromising attachment to tradition at a period when it was derided in the higher echelons of the Church, while remaining part of the mainstream, and active in the diocese. He also took on the chaplaincy of the Latin Mass Society, a ministry he held for many years. Great was his joy when Pope Benedict issued Summorum Pontificum. Today’s new generation of traditionalists have much to thank Antony Conlon for.
In 1993 he became the first chaplain of the restored Grand Priory since the Reformation, a post he held till his death. In 2001 he also accepted the chaplaincy of Cardinal Newman’s Oratory School near Reading. Almost immediately he restored the old chapel and reinstated the annual Corpus Christi procession; he also coached football, and was the school’s – always hilarious – theatre critic. His legacy from the school includes dozens of converts, including many of the boys’ families.
In 2014 he was appointed parish priest of Goring-on-Thames. Once more a splendid restoration of the church took place, and again his new parishioners soon fell in love with him. He commissioned a new parish hall, badly needed, building work on which had begun on site a month before he died. He passed away after several years cheerfully battling ill health, still working at parish duties days before his death.
A longer version of this obituary has been published by the Order of Malta