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Cardinal O’Connor, ‘a son of Ireland’

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Harry Keaney

After eight months battling cancer, Cardinal John O’Connor, a native of Philadelphia whose ancestors came from County Roscommon and who rose from obscurity to become one of the U.S.’ leading Catholic churchmen, died Wednesday evening. After funeral Mass Monday in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he was interred in a crypt beneath the cathedral’s altar.

Cardinal O’Connor was 80.

Last August, Cardinal O’Connor underwent surgery for a brain tumor and never fully recovered. Early Wednesday morning, May 3, the cardinal’s condition took a turn for the worse. He died at 8:05 p.m. in his residence on Madison Avenue, in Manhattan. His sister, Mary Ward, and other family members, clergy and co-workers were at his bedside.

The cause of death was cardiopulmonary arrest.

Last St. Patrick’s Day, for the first time in his 16 years in New York, Cardinal O’Connor was unable to celebrate the traditional morning Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral or view the parade from the cathedral steps. He also was unable to celebrate Mass on Easter Sunday.

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He did, however, manage a final public appearance in the cathedral in early March following a fleeting February trip to Rome in what was a farewell meeting with Pope John Paul II. That the Holy Father saw fit to send his second in command, the Vatican secretary of state, Angelo Sodano, to preside at O’Connor’s funeral Mass Monday was an indication of the esteem in which the pope held the New York archbishop. On meeting O’Connor on one occasion, Pope John Paul is reputed to have said, "Here’s the bishop of Rome with the archbishop of the capital of the world."

O’Connor and the pope were like-minded church leaders, unwavering in their loyalty to traditional 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.

Five years ago, when he turned 75, O’Connor tendered his resignation to the Vatican in accordance with church law. On that occasion, he said he hadn’t the vaguest idea what the pope’s decision would be on receiving the letter. "I can say . . . swear to it if I was to drop dead in the next few minutes, that I don’t know what will happen," he said, adding that he might be archbishop of New York for a few more months or a few more years.

A few more years it turned out to be.

While O’Connor’s conservative stance on doctrinal issues endeared him to most of his archdiocese’s 2.4 million Catholics, it also left him open to criticism and attack.

Among his strongest critics were members of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization. In what has become an annual confrontation over ILGO’s unsuccessful effort to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York under its own banner, O’Connor, as expected, was on the side of parade organizers, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Catholic fraternal and charitable organization. In fact, some in ILGO claimed his selection as grand marshal of the parade in 1995 was payback for his support of the AOH, under whose auspices the parade is organized.

The cardinal took a keen interest in Irish affairs. He regularly met — usually in private — with participants in the current peace process in Northern Ireland whenever they visited New York. His own 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."

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.

In July 1988, O’Connor traveled again to Ireland, this time with New York Mayor Ed Koch on a highly publicized peace pilgrimage that took in Belfast, Armagh, Dublin and the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock in County Mayo.

While in Belfast, O’Connor reacted to an IRA car bombing — which had taken three lives a few days previously — by telling reporters that even the worst acts of violence had not crushed his hopes for peace. "The violence proves the need to believe Christ can provide peace with justice," he said.

Two years later, O’Connor returned to Ireland, this time on a more personal journey which took him to the ancestral home of the O’Connor clan, in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon.

He regularly spoke out 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, executive director of the archdiocesan Catholic Charities.

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

Meeting with journalists the previous December in his house on Madison Avenue, when his selection as grand marshal was announced, the cardinal was asked what he thought his father might have thought of him. Displaying his quick-witted sense of humor, he replied: "My father would be astounded because he never thought I would amount to anything. My mother would take it for granted."

He added he was "completely stunned" when he was asked by the parade chairman, John Dunleavy, and AOH officer Martin Kearns to accept the position of grand marshal. "I didn’t know what they wanted to talk to me about when they asked to see me," he said. However, he said he had such admiration for what the AOH had done that he had no option but to accept.

Dunleavy said at the time that the parade represented "the faith of our fathers, our heritage, our culture and our family values" and "no one could emphasize that better than Cardinal O’Connor."

Philly native

The cardinal himself often expressed wonder, and gratitude, that someone like him, born on Jan. 15, 1920 and raised in a small row house in southwest Philadelphia, could become archbishop and cardinal in New York, with the added honor of being chosen to lead the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

He was 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. He was also a proud union member and a devout Catholic.

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

Cardinal O’Connor himself maintained that respect for the labor movement. Indeed, speaking from the altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral some months ago during a Mass for those in the labor movement, he said he had ordered that his casket should have a union label.

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.

Military man

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 U.S. 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. During his military career, he also earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a doctorate in political science.

He retired from the Navy 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 country’s fourth largest archdiocese, the cardinal oversaw 413 parishes, 55 high schools, 238 elementary schools, 882 priests, 3,707 sisters, 17 hospitals, 11 mental health residences and 13 day care centers, as well as social service and child care agencies.

He was a staunch advocate for Catholic education, the handicapped, the unborn and those afflicted with AIDS. He also helped promote greater friendship between his church and those of the Jewish faith. But despite his many roles, he himself always said he loved being a priest.

He is survived by three siblings: Dorothy Hamilton of St. Petersburg, Fla.; Mary Theresa Ward of Chadds Ford, Pa., and by a brother, Thomas J. O’Connor of Sea Isle City, N.J.

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