Category: Archive

Cardinal John O’Connor, 1920-2000

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Patrick Markey and Harry Keaney

NEW YORK — After eight months battling cancer, Cardinal John O’Connor, archbishop of New York and the nation’s oldest and most prominent Catholic leader, died Wednesday evening. He was 80.

The cardinal underwent surgery for a brain tumor in August and never fully recovered.

Last March, for the first time in his 16 years in New York, he was unable to celebrate the traditional morning Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral or view the parade from the cathedral steps. He did, however, manage a final public appearance in early March after a fleeting trip to Rome in what was a farewell meeting with Pope John Paul II.

News of the cardinal’s death had been expected but his passing still shocked the city and the nation’s Catholic community for whom he had been an inspirational, and at times, controversial, figure.

Outside St Patrick’s Cathedral on Thursday morning, mourners had already started to fill the sidewalk with flowers and the flags flew at half staff outside the Fifth Avenue edifice.

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The cardinal’s remains will lie in state in St. Patrick’s Cathedral until the funeral, which is expected to take place Monday at 2 p.m. He will be buried in a crypt beneath the cathedral.

During his years as America’s preeminent Catholic leader, O’Connor was unwavering in his loyalty to traditional church teaching Indeed, it was often reported but never confirmed that the pope, who elevated O’Connor to cardinal in 1985, said he wanted a man like himself in New York.

While O’Connor’s conservative stance endeared to most of his archdiocese’s 2.4 million Catholics, it left him open to criticism.

Tributes to the cardinal from ordinary New Yorkers to national politicians remembered a man as famous for his dry humor from the pulpit as he was for his staunch opposition to abortion and homosexuality.

"For more than 50 years, he has reached out with uncommon fortitude to minister to the needs of America’s Catholics. The courage and firm faith he showed in his final illness inspired us all," President Bill Clinton said.

A statement from the New York Archdiocese said the cardinal’s condition took a dramatic turn early Wednesday morning. The cardinal died that evening peacefully with his sister, Mary Ward, and other family members, clergy and co-workers at his side in his Madison Avenue residence.

"His eminence John Cardinal O’Connor has completed his earthly journey and has gone home to God," the statement read.

Since his appointment to New York took a keen interest in Irish affairs, regularly meeting with participants in the current peace process in the North.

His diocesan newspaper, Catholic New York, in a special issue in January to mark his 80th birthday, carried a full page feature headlined "Son of Ireland."

According to that article, the cardinal made three visits to Ireland: a pastoral visit in 1984 in his role as chairman of the Committee on Social Development and World Peace of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, a pilgrimage in 1988 to pray for peace, and a visit in 1990 to the ancestral home of the O’Connor clan, in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon.

O’Connor spoke out regularly for justice for Irish groups and individuals such as Joe Doherty, the IRA member detained by U.S. authorities for almost a decade before being deported to Northern Ireland, as well as the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven.

In the 1980s, as the Irish economy lapsed into recession and unemployment rocketed, the cardinal’s concern for the droves of Irish immigrants led to the establishment of Project Irish Outreach by Msgr. James Murray.

In 1995, he was grand marshal of the 234th New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the first sitting archbishop and the first cardinal to lead the event. It was one of his proudest moments.

Former grand marshal Bill Flynn, the Mutual of America CEO, said when fears of the cardinal’s death first surfaced that O’Connor had touched the whole country with his energy, his strong convictions, his wit and defense of church teaching.

"We can’t help but remember in the mid-1980s, when AIDS was first learned about and people who had it were shunned, he was right there asking New Yorkers for a spirit of compassion toward these people."

When O’Connor was selected as grand marshal and he was asked what his father, who was of Roscommon ancestry, might have thought of him, the cardinal replied with characteristic quick wit: "My father would be astounded because he never thought I would amount to anything. My mother would take it for granted."

Among his most implacable foes were gay and lesbian groups, including the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization. In what has become an annual confrontation over ILGO’s participation in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, O’Connor sided with parade organizers, the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

O’Connor was born on Jan. 15, 1920 and raised in a small row house in southwest Philadelphia, the fourth of five children of Mary Gomple O’Connor and Thomas J. O’Connor, a craftsman skilled in goldleafing. Thomas O’Connor was the only one of 13 siblings to be born in the U.S. instead of Ireland. He was also a proud union member and devout Catholic.

"He was no respecter of persons just because of the positions they held," the cardinal once said of his father.

Young John O’Connor attended public elementary and junior high schools before entering Philadelphia’s West Catholic High School for Boys, where, he said, the De La Salle Christian Brothers helped foster his vocation for the priesthood.

As a youth, missionary life appealed to him and he approached his parish priest with the hope of pursuing his dream of becoming a Holy Ghost Father serving in Africa or a Maryknoll priest in China. The answer was blunt: "If you want to be a priest, be a priest in Philadelphia."

He entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in 1936. Thanks to his excellent grades and extracurricular activities, he was allowed to complete his studies for the priesthood at the North American College, the seminary in Rome sponsored by the U.S. bishops.

He was ordained in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on Dec. 15, 1945, a month before his 26th birthday.

His first assignment was as a high school teacher and guidance counselor while in residence at a local parish, where he assisted at weekends. He also conducted a 15-minute Catholic news radio program on Sundays.

In 1952, as the Korean War was heating up, he was asked by his bishop to sign up for the military chaplaincy. Serving in the navy and Marine Corps, he began a career as a chaplain, which included service with combat troops in Vietnam, chaplain to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and, finally, as rear admiral and navy chief of chaplains. He retired in May 1979 after 27 years.

That same month, he was ordained a bishop and assigned to the Military Ordinariate, then based in Manhattan and headed by Cardinal Cooke, who became his mentor and friend.

After five years he was appointed bishop of Scranton, Pa. In 1984, he succeeded Cooke as archbishop of New York. As archbishop of New York, the cardinal oversees an array of hospitals, schools and other diocesan institutions serving his sprawling archdiocese.

But despite his many roles, he himself has always said he loved being a priest.

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