An elderly Sydney priest who disarmed an intruder says he thought it was either “me or him” when he confronted the man in the church presbytery.

Father John Mello, 72, was stabbed in the arm while taking a knife from a robber less than half his age at St Kevin’s Catholic Church at Dee Why, on Sydney’s northern beaches.

The priest was having dinner and reading the paper about 7.20pm (AEST) on Monday when he heard something and disturbed the intruder, aged between 25-30.

Fr Mello said when he confronted the man, wearing a balaclava and armed with a knife about 25 to 30cm long, he was “vividly conscious” he could be “horizontal in one second”, and acted automatically to disarm his attacker.

“I was walking out of the dining room and on my right hand side there is a little corridor, and there was a man with a balaclava and I said `What are you doing here?’

“I saw the dangers, I thought it could be me or him now, I was so conscious vividly that I could be horizontal in one second.

“I acted almost automatically, but there was also the clear idea that it could be final. I said, so be it.”

Fr Mello received a stab wound to his arm while disarming his attacker and needed a number of stitches when he was later taken to Manly Hospital.

But once he had hold of the knife, Fr Mello did not panic.

Instead, he led his assailant out of the church, but not before giving him a lecture.

He believes the man, who had broken into the church property by climbing onto the roof and slipping in through a window, had become trapped in the presbytery.

“When I got the knife in my hand I pointed to him and said `What are you doing here?’,” said the Italian-born priest, who emigrated to Australia in 1962.

“And he said `Let me out, let me out’. He was trapped in because with safety locks you need the key.

“So I opened the door and let him out and then he turned around and said, `I only wanted some money … you’re a priest, you should help.

“And I said `Blimey, you intrude, you come with a balaclava and a knife, and you want money. It is not the way to do things’.”

He said his attacker, who he described as a small man, was not violent or aggressive during the confrontation.

“When I went for the knife he didn’t resist,” he said.

“He was like a lamb.”

Officers including the dog squad canvassed the surrounding streets last night for the young man.

He is described as having a dark complexion and dark eyes. He was wearing dark-coloured clothing and had a grey jumper wrapped around his head.

A number of elderly Catholic priests reside at the presbytery, which is part of the Broken Bay Diocese.

Fr Mello, who returned to work on Tuesday, said the church no longer felt like “home, sweet, home” due to the attack.

He said it was not the first time the church had been targeted by thieves.

“A couple of years ago they broke in and stole $6,000,” he said.

“Luckily that time they did everything without disturbing me.”