Paulist Fr. Lionel DeSilva dies at 87

December 7, 2016

Paulist Fr. Lionel DeSilva in 1970
Paulist Fr. Lionel DeSilva in 1970

With sadness, we announce the passing into eternal life of our brother, Paulist Fr. Lionel DeSilva, on Tuesday evening, Dec. 6, 2016, at the Mary Manning Walsh Home in New York City. He was 87.

Fr. DeSilva had been a member of the Paulist Fathers community for 64 years and had been a priest for more than 57 years. He spent much of his priesthood as a member of our mission band, preaching parish missions and retreats around the United States and Canada and, for part of the 1960s, in South Africa.

Fr. DeSilva was born Oct. 31, 1929, to Louis and Irene DeSilva in British Guiana (now Guyana) in South America. He attended school there before moving, at age 19, to New York where he met the Paulist Fathers.

“The Paulists had a different way of seeing things than any other group of priests I had ever met,” he recalled in a 2012 interview.

Fr. DeSilva made his first promises to our community on Sept. 8, 1953, and his final promises on Sept. 8, 1956. He earned his B.A. from our seminary, St. Paul’s College in Washington, D.C., which was then a degree-granting institution.

“He was well-loved by the other guys,” remembered Paulist Fr. Jeremiah Sullivan, Fr. DeSilva’s seminary classmate. “He was an incredibly energetic, healthy and strong character.”

Fr. DeSilva was ordained a priest on May 1, 1959, by the Archdiocese of New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman.

Paulist Fr. Lionel DeSilva in 2012, around the time of this 50th anniversary of ordination.
Paulist Fr. Lionel DeSilva in 2012, around the time of this 50th anniversary of ordination.

He then spent his pastoral year at the Park Street Center, now the Paulist Center, in Boston. That was followed by two years in Catholic campus ministry (then called the “Newman Apostolate”) at Clemson University in South Carolina.

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While he was serving at Clemson, Fr. DeSilva took part in scrimmages with the Clemson Football team, said Paulist Fr. Kevin Devine, recalling that Fr. DeSilva was then “a massive man.”

From 1962 to 1969, Fr. DeSilva was a missionary in South Africa, conducting parish missions and retreats. One news report recalls that, in 1967, he worked to establish the Catholic Student Society on the campus of the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.

He then returned to the United States, serving on the Paulist mission bands based at the Church of Saint Paul The Apostle in New York (1969 to 1978) and St. Austin Catholic Parish in Austin, TX (1981 to 1991). From 1978 to 1981, he was the pastoral associate at St. Leo The Great Catholic Parish in Houston, TX.

In 1991, Fr. DeSilva returned to New York City where he served as an associate pastor at Good Shepherd Church in the Inwood neighborhood of northern Manhattan through 2006. He then served for several more years at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle and was a chaplain at Roosevelt Hospital.

Fr. Devine said Fr. DeSilva was “one of the greatest of the Paulists in terms of preaching.”

“He was simple with the Gospel message, preaching in a man-to-man way. He could reach a whole congregation and spellbind them,” recalled Fr. Devine. “Often, he would end with a song but it was very natural. Suddenly, his words would turn into music.”

Paulist Fr. Lionel DeSilva with Fr. Donald Howard (left) and Fr. Francis McGough (center).
Paulist Fr. Lionel DeSilva with Fr. Donald Howard (left) and Fr. Francis McGough (center) around 1962, likely at Clemson University in South Carolina

desliva-1998Paulist Fr. Lionel DeSilva
Paulist Fr. Lionel DeSilva

A wake for Fr. DeSilva will be held Sunday, Dec. 11, from 7 to 9 p.m., in the chapel of the Paulist Fathers Motherhouse at 415 West 59th St. in New York City.

Fr. DeSilva’s funeral Mass will be held Monday, Dec. 12, at 10 a.m. at our mother church, the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, in New York City. Paulist Fr. Eric Andrews, president of our community, will serve as the principal celebrant. Paulist Fr. Kevin Devine will preach the homily. 

After the funeral Mass, Fr. DeSilva’s remains will be buried at St. Thomas the Apostle Church Cemetery in Oak Ridge, NJ. A reception will follow at the church.