FORDINGBRIDGE priest Father Des Connolly – who more than tripled his congregation during his three years in the town – is leaving his flock to move on to pastures new this Sunday.

Parishioners from St Mary and St Philip are gathering to say farewell to their much-loved priest, who is moving to Southampton.

Church secretary Anne Hammond told the Forest Journal that the past three years with Father Des had been an “amazing experience”.

“I am not a religious person but Father Des has opened my eyes with fresh perspective,” she said.

“He is so charismatic and he is brilliant at getting his message across. We are really miserable that he is leaving.

“He has brought new life to St Mary and St Philip. Before he arrived we had about 52 parishioners attending services in our church and now we have 180 at the weekend.”

Mrs Hammond added: “Over the past three years we have enjoyed a true sense of community and belonging and this has rippled through the church.

“Father Des will be sadly missed.”

Father Des, who travelled back from Georgia in Russia this week, came to the church three years ago and revitalised the life and services at St Mary and St Philip.

The congregation soon doubled and then tripled, with more and more children attending the services.

Father Des organises The Poitiers Project, which supports women trying to get out of prostitution, destitute asylum seekers, families in chronic debt, young men and women from social services moving to private accommodation.

He also works with people with a drug dependency to try to help them get through their problems and rebuild their lives.

He provides a daily confidential food delivery service and a furniture delivery service for those in need.

Father Des is also involved with The Medaille Trust which helps young people out of sextrafficking.

His work on behalf of the charity caught the imagination of his congregation and now every parishioner is involved in the trust.

A hog roast is being held on Sunday and about 200 people are expected to attend the event at the little church.

Father Des is finishing off the day with a solemn benediction - when he will sing at St Mary and St Philip for the last time.