By Michael P. Walsh
Special to the Voice
Joan Downing Connor, a founding member of the West Haven Irish-American Club who epitomizes the qualities of an Irish Westie, will receive the city’s Irishwoman of the Year award on the Friday before St. Patrick’s Day at the 28th annual St. Patrick’s Day Celebration.
The West Haven St. Patrick’s Day Committee will fete Connor, the daughter of immigrant parents from County Kerry, Ireland, by hanging a green street sign designating City Hall’s Campbell Avenue entrance “Joan D. Connor Square” for a year.
Last year’s recipient, Coleman W. Walsh, Jr., will take home his sign at the start of the ceremony.
The “Irish Person of the Year” honor is bestowed annually on an Irish resident, or couple, who personifies service in the city’s rich Irish-American community.
“It means the world to me to be thought of like this and to remember everyone who started the Irish-American Club,” said Connor, who will toast her Irish heritage with scores of her closest friends and loved ones, along with an array of shamrock-clad dignitaries and descendants of folks from Erin. “It brings back such fond memories.”
Accompanied by Celtic music played by bagpipers and drummers, members of the West Haven Police Color Guard will escort Connor to the Campbell Avenue side of City Hall at noon March 15 for her special recognition.
A corned beef and cabbage lunch will follow in the First Congregational Church of West Haven’s Fellowship Hall, at 1 Church St. opposite City Hall on the Green.
The St. Patrick’s Day Committee, led by Chairwoman Beth A. Sabo, the city’s commissioner of human resources, includes the lifeblood of West Haven’s Irish-American society, such as members of the Irish club and former honorees, as well as former and current city, fire and police officials.
“The committee made a wonderful choice,” Mayor Nancy R. Rossi said. “Mrs. Connor is the epitome of a first-generation American. She is proud of her heritage and cherishes her home community of West Haven.”
Connor, 86, hails from an ancestry whose legacy is stitched into the tapestry of the American fabric.
From celestial green shores, millions of indomitable Irish sons and daughters set out across the Atlantic Ocean seeking a brighter day in the United States. Alongside a melting pot of other immigrants, the Irish people helped build strong communities like West Haven and forge America’s future.
In 1911, at the ages of 24 and 21, respectively, Connor’s parents, John Downing and the former Nellie Reilly, left their homeland in search of the American promise, eventually meeting in New Haven’s Newhallville neighborhood and marrying there in 1922.
Her father worked as a waiter and bartender, and her mother toiled as a maid and homemaker who raised the couple’s four daughters.
“I was brought up with pride to be Irish and to be an American,” Connor said. “I am very proud to say that I am first generation here. My parents were very proud to be American citizens, and my mother always said we were American Catholics of Irish descent. So keeping my heritage alive is very important to me.”
She added, “Being Irish means family, friends, love, laughter — taking care of each other, and having a laugh and a good time while you do it.”
Connor, born in the Elm City in 1932, grew up in a two-family home at 109 Lilac St. in Newhallville.
She graduated from Wilbur Cross High School in 1950. Two years later, she married James J. Connor and had three children, Joanne Connor, James P. Connor, who died in 1980, and Patricia Connor Thompson.
The Connors moved to West Haven in 1957 to raise their family and “build a better life for themselves.”
The couple were instrumental in founding the Irish-American Club in 1962 with John and Mary Reynolds, Jim and Rita Artes, Jack and Bea Neylan, Dick and Kate Jones. They were joined by the Gallagher, Hudson and McDonough clans.
According to Connor, they asked one another at the time, “New Haven has an Irish club, why not West Haven?”
After more than a half-century of continuous operation, the Irish club is still going strong. And Connor is still a hands-on member.
Rossi lauded the civic-minded Connor for her dedication to the Irish-American community, saying, “Mrs. Connor has touched the lives of many Westies and has made an indelible mark on the Irish-American community here.”
The mayor will present her with an Irish flag and a proclamation citing her commitment to “carrying on the spirited traditions of Ireland and the spiritual teachings of St. Patrick.”
Connor will also receive a jacket embroidered with her new title: Irishwoman of the Year.
The Irish-American community in West Haven takes great pride in the St. Patrick’s Day traditions that have been handed down from each generation. The wearin’ of the green holiday remains a day of fun in the minds of the many who celebrate it, but there is also a deeply religious significance for the Irish Catholic community.
Every March 17, those of Irish birth or lineage honor the memory of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland who brought the message of Christ to the Irish people nearly 1,600 years ago. Teaching the word of God, St. Patrick used the three-leaf shamrock, with each leaf representing the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The need to preserve their Celtic identity led the Irish, fleeing famine and poverty on the Emerald Isle to the shores of America in the 1800s, to form the Hibernian Society, which held the first St. Patrick’s Day parades, and local organizations, such as the West Haven Irish-American Club.
Members of the New Haven County Firefighters Emerald Society Pipes & Drums, including bagpiper Greg McGovern, will lead the opening procession, followed by remarks from master of ceremonies David Coyle.
The Rev. Mark R. Jette, former pastor of St. Lawrence and St. Paul churches in West Haven who now serves Sacred Heart Church in Suffield, will offer an Irish blessing. Fiona Stewart, queen of the 2013 Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade, will sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Irish national anthem, “Soldier’s Song,” followed by a greeting from Rossi.
Joined by her daughter Joanne, Connor will then pull off a shroud revealing the rectangular sign.
Connor and her husband, who died in 2003, wore many hats in the Irish club. They helped plan the open house party after the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the spring Easter egg hunt, the summer picnic in Painter Park, and the “Christmas in Ireland” dinner dance.
She ran the Feis, the club’s Irish dance competition, and made traditional Irish dance costumes for her children, who took lessons from Kathleen Mulkerin Jones.
In the 1995 parade, Connor led the club as marshal. She received the club’s Appreciation Award in 2000.
A woman of faith and family, Connor, who lives on Jones Hill Road in West Shore, is a longtime parishioner and volunteer at the nearby Our Lady of Victory Church. She is also a Eucharistic minister who gives the sacrament of Holy Communion to the sick and homebound.
Connor’s love of all things Irish and passion for community service has been passed on to her children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, many of whom have followed in their mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps as active members of the Irish club, the Irish community and charitable organizations.
Both her daughter Joanne and granddaughter Cathleen Steinau Buckheit, the 2003 parade queen, are former club presidents. Granddaughter Katie Thompson was the parade’s honor attendant in 2012 and 2013.
In addition to participating in the Irish club, Connor is perhaps best known for having worked as a security officer for the Board of Education at West Haven High School for years.
Long before the advent of school resource officers, it was Connor and her dear friend, Mary Reynolds, who monitored the halls keeping teens in class and out of trouble.
Connor was affectionately known as the “Blue Lady” and Reynolds the “Pink Lady.”
“Mary was already known for her pink smock, so when my mother took the position, she asked that her color be blue in honor of the Virgin Mary and her strong Irish Catholic faith,” Joanne Connor said.
Although Joan Connor retired from the school board in 1996 after a 31-year career, she is still recognized by former students, her daughter said.
The high school legend, who served as the first female president of the custodial, maintenance and clerical union, “was loved and feared by many as she walked those halls in her blue Nikes,” Joanne Connor said.