Father Michael D. Lilly, O.P. (1831-1900)

On the death of Father Lilly St Joseph’s Province of the Dominican Order lost one of its ablest and most energetic members. Until last summer he had enjoved excellent health was hale and hearty notwithstanding the fact that for the last four years of his life he had suffered from that most terrible of temporal afflictions total blindness. About the first of July he began to feel the effects of the extreme heat and two weeks later was confined to his bed He rallied and was able to celebrate Mass for the last time on St Dominic’s day. Owing to his advanced age three score years and ten and the lack of vital force that had been expended in the active ministry of almost half a century he succumbed to heat prostration. The end came about noon on August 20. That morning he had been fortified by the last rites of the Church his immediate relatives were called to his bedside and whilst his religious brethren recited the customary prayers he passed away. His death like his life was calm peaceful and edifying.

Father Lilly was born in County Fermanagh Ireland in 1831. He had already received a liberal education when he resolved to come to America. Shortly after his arrival he heard the voice of God calling him to labor in the promising vineyard of the young Church in America. He entered the Dominican novitiate and after the usual course of theological studies was ordained priest by Archbishop Purcell of Cincinnati on St Dominic’s day 1855. It is a singular coincidence that his last Mass was celebrated on the anniversary of his ordination. His superiors resolved to make good use of the brilliant talents of the newly ordained priest and appointed him to a professorship in the college they formerly conducted near Somerset Ohio.

A few years later he was named president of that institution. His superior administrative abilities commended him to his religious brethren as one worthy of the highest positions of trust and responsibility within the Order. He was soon elected Prior of St Joseph’s Priory and on the resignation of the Provincial Father Raymond Young he was appointed Vicar Provincial of the province. At the expiration of the term of office he was made pastor of St Peter’s in Memphis, Tenn. Thence he went to New York to take charge of the newly established parish of St Vincent Ferrer. For many years he labored in the spiritual and material building up of this great parish. About this time he had executed the beautiful frescoes that adorn the walls of St Vincent’s and make this church one of the most devotional houses of prayer in our land. They are a lasting monument to the genius of the artist and the superb taste of the Prior.

Incessant unremitting toil had impaired the health of Father Lilly. When his bosom friend Father Thomas Burke had completed his great work in America and was about to return to Ireland he insisted upon Father Lilly going with him. His sojourn in his native land recuperated his strength and he returned to America in renewed health and vigor. Some years later at the Provincial Chapter presided over by the Most Reverend Father Larocca, Master General of the Dominicans, who then happened to be visiting America, Father Lilly was elected Provincial. At the expiration of this term he was again elected to the priorship of St Vincent’s. He lived almost uninterruptedly at this convent until his death. The administration of Father Lilly both as Provincial and Prior was characterized by strict sense of and attention to duty by justice and paternal solicitude for his subordinates by order and system in all business affairs.

That Father Lilly possessed in a marked degree that rare combination of superior qualities so necessary to every superior of religious communities is abundantly manifest from the fact that he had been so repeatedly chosen by his brethren to rule over them. In a religious order where all the posts of honor and trust are elective it is certainly a magnificent compliment to any one’s ability and fitness to be frequently elected to such posts. But all those honors all that activity were but one view of this noble priest. They were mere exterior manifestations the reflex of that nobler higher interior religious life that animated his great soul. His parishioners and friends knew well his zeal for their spiritual welfare and his exact and generous performance of pastoral duties. They knew and admired the cultured gentleman and the ripe scholar.

Only those who have had the good fortune to have lived with him for years in the privacy of convent life know the fervent religious, the aspirations of the devout soul, the unceasing effort to attain the Dominican ideal union of the active and contemplative life. The exactitude with which he performed his religious duties and his strict observance of his rule were perpetual sources of edification to his brethren.  Zeal for souls was the keynote of this devoted priest’s life. He knew that from the pulpit and through the confessional sinners can be reached. With rare industry did he prepare himself for the preaching of those impressive sermons that touched the hearts of the most hardened culprits and coaxed them to the tribunal of Penance.

The fruit of his zealous ministrations in the confessional is known to God alone Countless bleeding hearts have been soothed and healed by his kindly words and wise direction numberless wayward souls were led back gently to the path of virtue and many devout souls safely guided and directed in their efforts to attain Christian perfection. If the good effect that sermons have on souls be a criterion of eloquence then may we say that Father Lilly was truly eloquent. Though not an impassioned orator he was most impressive. His language was simple but clear correct and forcible his delivery was modest and natural nothing dramatic about it no straining after effect. But from earnest zeal and true piety from a sympathetic heart sprung the burning words that pierced the hearts of his auditors.

Father Lilly’s whole life was virtuous; in the closing years it was heroic. Four years ago he was stricken with total blindness. How great was this affliction to one so studious so devoted to serious reading we can scarcely imagine. Yet no word of complaint no murmur ever escaped his lips. With resignation with fortitude even with contentment he bore this heavy cross. His only regret was that he could not work for the good of souls as in former years. But he was not inactive he could still perform the trying but congenial labor to every devout priest hear confessions. His greatest consolation was that during this prolonged dark night of his declining years he could celebrate Mass every day. He received from the Holy Father permission to celebrate provided that he memorized a Mass. He committed to memory a Mass of the Blessed Virgin and offered up the Holy Sacrifice daily in the convent chapel. During the years of his blindness his devoted sister a Dominican nun was kindly stationed at a house of her Order near St Vincent’s and her free time was spent ministering to her beloved brother. Father Lilly’s soul has passed to the eternal reward of a life spent in promoting the glory of God and securing the salvation of souls. His brethren deplore his death, his friends mourn for him. But memory of his noble work his sanctity and good example still live.

The Rosary Magazine (Novemeber 1901): 491-493.

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