Fr John O'Connell (1933 - 2013)
by Fr Leo Donnelly
Fr Leo Donnelly writes about his close friend Fr John O'Connell who died recently in Lima, Peru. Father John is one of a small number of Columbans who have served as Regional Director in two different countries. A regional director is the equivalent of provincial superior in religious life. We are not religious but secular priests, members of a society of apostolic life. That means that we don't take a vow of poverty nor are we required to live in community.
I've added a memory of my own. So many of our happy memories are connected with music and with festive gatherings. I don't know if anyone else who was present remembers what I recall below. But memories of 'little things' are very personal.
Fr Leo Donnelly, an Australian Columban, was ordained in 1957, the same year as the late Fr John O'Connell was. Father Leo has been in Peru all his life as a priest. The photo above was taken at adespedida for Father John in Túpac Amaru District, Lima, in 2011.
Fr John Joseph O´Connell died in hospital in Lima the morning of Thursday, 24 October aged 80. Father John, a Kerryman to his fingertips, often sported Kerry jerseys around his parish of San Pedro y San Pablo, Payet, Independencia, Lima.
The crest of the Kerry Gaelic Football and Hurling teams. The boat is a symbol of St Brendan the Navigator, one of Ireland's early missionaries and, like Father John, a Kerryman. 'Kerry' is the anglicized form of the original Irish, 'Ciarraí'. [Image from Wikipedia]
Ordained in December 1957 in St Columban’s, Dalgan Park, Ireland, and assigned to Perú, he was sent to Spain for a three-month course in Spanish. Then he ‘walked down’ to Lima, as the late Columban Fr Dan Boland put it, arriving in late March 1959. His first assignment was as an assistant in the new Columban parish of Blessed Martin de Porres’. He wasn´t three years in Lima when given the almighty task of building the basilica under the name of its patron. Blessed Martin was coming up for canonization in 1962, so it was a very popular though expensive project which he fulfilled, and he was present at the canonization under Blessed John XXIII.
Christmas Midnight Mass at St Martin de Porres Church
Father John returned to Ireland in 1980, serving as a member of the Mission Promotion team and then as Regional Director. He returned to Perú in 1996 and worked in the parish of San Pedro y San Pablo, Payet.
Father John inspired people. He inspired his fellow priests. He inspired his people in the four parishes of Lima in which he served and gave his life for. You only had to travel around Ireland with him to become aware of just how much he inspired his own people. As a true Kerryman, this often meant going off visiting at about 11.00 at night.
Father John was a man aware of his own dignity as a person and this freed him to acknowledge our shared dignity with each and every other person. If there is any essential characteristic to being a missionary this aspect is basic when dealing with people born into an ambiance of being ‘a nobody’ in our world. It was in this ambiance that he proved himself a loyal friend to so many. Built on the person he was, his long-term appointments facilitated his relating to his people at this level.
Tribute and farewell to Fr John O'Connell, Parish of San Pedro y San Pablo, Túpac Amaru District (also known as 'Payet'), Lima, 2011
Like everyone else he took his share of knocks and misunderstandings in life. He was Regional Director in the late 1960s in the aftermath of Vatican II, which had given us a new awareness of Social Justice in a Gospel context. Many of our group embraced this new vision and went bald-headed for promoting social change. This in turn created tensions with those involved in the more traditional approach. Father John empathized with the argument for change, but was always kind, discreet and at pains to maintain the unity of the group.
Father John proved himself one of our best and gave our people a great confidence in the man he was. Dealing with mostly poor and often semi-literate migrants, he helped so many to become aware of their dignity as persons and to trust one another. He countered the racism inherent in the culture while he empowered the despised ‘nobodies’ to achieve grassroots social change.
Finally, what gift in this prayerful man identified Father John as a priest for his people? There was a warmth to the man that we don't all possess and on one occasion this was presented as he being likened to a peat fire in the hearth gently warming the room and its people.
I didn't know Fr John O'Connell very well but have one very happy memory of him when he was Regional Director in Ireland. In 1986 the Columbans went to Belize and Jamaica. We worked in Belize till 1996 and in Jamaica till 1999. There was a mission-sending ceremony in St Columban's, Dalgan Park, Ireland. After Mass we had lunch followed by a short programme.
In recent years we Columbans have been emphasising the cross-cultural aspect of our missionary work, something that has always been there but is being reflected on more these days. Fr Leo Donnelly tells us in his obituary of his great friend being 'a Kerryman to his fingertips'. Kerry, one of Ireland's 32 counties, is in the south-west of Ireland. To the east of it is Cork. Cork and Kerry are great rivals in Gaelic Football. The unofficial 'anthem' of Cork is a song called The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee, colloquially known as 'De Banks'.
On that happy day when we were sending Columban priests to two new missions Father John, a proud Kerryman, crossed 'cultural boundaries' and gave one of the best renditions of 'De Banks' that I've ever heard. And the whole occasion was an expression of the vision of our founders, Fr Edward Galvin and Fr John Blowick, to be like St Columban our patron,Peregrinos pro Christo, Pilgrims for Christ, and to proclaim the Gospel by the love we show one another.
May Father John be a member of the heavenly choir for all eternity.
While Father John's rendition of The Banks 0f My Own Lovely Lee was one of the very best I've heard he won't mind my saying that that of Seán Ó Sé, arranged by Seán Ó Riada, both Corkmen, is the best. (I'm a Dubliner!)