Missionary changed lives as father figure to former gang members

Brother Joseph Matthaeus Connors, 1939-2023


Brother Joseph Matthaeus Connors, 83, a Divine Word Missionary known for guiding young men out of street gangs, died May 6, in Techny, Ill.
In Greenville, Miss., Brother Matt undertook much-needed ministry with youth who participate in risky behavior and gangs. Those efforts eventually became Sacred Heart Youth Outreach.
He did whatever it took to render assistance—delivering clothes and food purchased with his stipend, teaching them how to read, helping boys in danger of entering street gangs and assisting boys who wished to leave gangs.
He also provided a safe haven where rival gang members—whose presence would elicit open hostility on the streets—were brothers on the basketball court. Brother Matt opened the Sacred Heart Church gym to the youth, forbade them from bringing weapons and didn’t allow wearing gang colors. He became the only father figure that some of the youth knew.
A Delta Democrat Times reporter once wrote, “The work that Brother Matt has done…has mainly involved ‘the boys’ around Gloster Street who find themselves involved in drugs and gangs because of lack of parental authority or because they see their friends go that route.
“He has clothed them, fed them, paid their way to summer school, and driven them to and from the Sacred Heart gym at night after basketball games. Brother Matt has also given them work when they needed money, tried to find them jobs in the community and, most importantly, worked on their self-esteem and tried to improve their outlook on the future.”
The young men knew they could call him day or night, and they did. Seeing his impact, local police began to call upon Brother Matt as a resource when dealing with gang-related matters.
In 1990, he brokered a deal with the police department. In return for amnesty for the youth, Brother Matt collected 26 guns, three machetes, 100 rounds of ammunition and four bags of crack, and turned the contraband over to the authorities.
Four years later, rival gang members in Greenville met and fashioned a peace agreement that has stood the test of time and serves as a model for other cities.
Not all was smooth sailing, though. In the process of working with the young men, he once fell to the ground after getting decked in the face, and another time, he had to run to get away from a hail of bullets. He even stepped between two gang members with their guns drawn.
He told Onward magazine, “As soon as I stepped between them, I realized that both of their guns were pointed at my head. They were out to kill each other, not me. I just got in their way. One of the guns could have gone off and I would be dead now. But they put down their guns and walked away.”
Born Joseph Patrick Connors on Dec. 1, 1939, in New Bedford, Mass., he was the fourth of James and Martha (nee McNamara) Connors’s five children.
He joined the Society of the Divine Word at Conesus in 1959. And in 1962, he professed vows at Techny and took the name Matthaeus.
In the early years of religious life, he served as a cook, baker and butcher. From 1983 to 1990, he cared for the grounds of Holy Rosary Institute in Lafayette, La.
When his superiors assigned him to Sacred Heart Church in Greenville, Miss., they gave him the job of keeping the grounds. However, realizing the poverty and violence in the community, he felt compelled to make change.
Government and non-profit organizations recognized his work with youth. He received Greenville’s Delta Point of Pride Award for having a positive effect on the city, as well as the city’s Outstanding Citizen Award and the Man of the Year Award. He received the 1994 Jake Stein Community Service Award, presented by the Delta Democrat Times for dedicated service to making Greenville a better place to live and work.
After a decade in Greenville, Brother Matt was assigned as parish administrator of Immaculate Conception Church in Clarksdale, Miss.
In addition to the Greenville awards, he was selected to carry the Olympic Torch on its way to Atlanta in 1996.
In 2000, he also received the Call to Brotherhood Award from the National Association of Religious Brothers Assembly.
In retirement, he lived at Divine Word Residence at Bay St. Louis, Miss., for several years before moving to Techny in 2020.
Brother Matt’s wake and funeral took place in the chapel of the Divine Word Residence on May 11. He was laid to rest in St. Mary’s Cemetery at Techny, Ill.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations for the care of elderly and infirmed missionaries may be sent to The Rector, Divine Word Residence, 1901 Waukegan Rd., P.O. Box 6000, Techny, IL 60082-6000.

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