One morning, Msgr. David G. O’Connell found two dead bodies in the parking lot of St. Frances X. Cabrini Church in South L.A. When he first started at the parish in the late 1980s, there were killings every night.
“That’s when the whole crack cocaine epidemic was hitting South L.A.,” he said. The violence, while it has diminished, hasn’t gone away.
“Just three weeks ago, there were two young men shot and killed a couple of yards away from St. Michael’s School,” said Msgr. O’Connell. His pastoral ministry has focused on walking with his community and working with community leaders and law enforcement to curb violence.
Msgr. O’Connell, along with Msgr. Joseph V. Brennan and Father Robert Barron, have been named auxiliary bishops for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The announcement came from the Vatican on July 21.
“I’ve always thought that the Catholic parish is the real player in making life better for the people in these areas,” he said. “To do that well, we have to cooperate with the sheriff or the police or anybody else that we can to help combat violence and make the situation better for the people in these areas.”
Many of his parishioners over the years have been minorities and immigrants, some of whom are undocumented.
“It’s been the great joy of my life to be the pastor of these people, especially the ones who are suffering or in need or facing difficulty,” Msgr. O’Connell said. “And it’s been a great privilege, a great blessing to be given these parishes all these years, to be pastor all these years. The people have touched my heart the way they are sincere.”
Msgr. O’Connell is an Irish-born priest who heard a calling to the priesthood early in life.
“When I was a kid, people would ask me what I wanted to be, I told them I wanted to be a priest,” he said. “I don’t know why, to tell you the truth.”
In high school, he felt being a priest would be a great way of helping people and of doing good. Through seminary, the calling was clarified as a way “to follow Jesus.”
“That’s the way of the apostles, you know,” he said. “You choose it again and again. And we travel deeper on that journey.”
Having studied at All Hallows College in Dublin, Msgr. O’Connell was ordained to the priesthood on June 10, 1979 for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Since his ordination, Msgr. O’Connell has served as associate pastor at St. Raymond in Downey, St. Maria Goretti in Long Beach and St. Hillary in Pico Rivera, and then as pastor of St. Frances X. Cabrini, Ascension Catholic Church, St. Eugene and St. Michael parishes.
“They have a hunger for Jesus,” Msgr. O’Connell said of his parishioners. “They follow Jesus and they serve in the parishes and they help out, they serve different organizations. Despite the fact that they are very poor or suffering, they still love their Catholic parish and they still help as much as they can.”
He also served as a member of the Priest Pension Board, and currently serves on the Together in Mission Board as well as the Archdiocesan Finance Council, and continues to be a long-time member of the Council of Priests. He is a Knight of Peter Claver.
“I’ve been part of the people’s lives, and been there during the suffering of the young people who have lost their lives so many times, but I haven’t had any problems,” Msgr. O’Connell said. “I do believe what’s really important is for us to be out in the neighborhoods, to be out with the people.”
He also organizes regular retreats for fathers, another key to changing the communities. Msgr. O’Connell leads the retreats in the mountains and they focus on how to be good fathers, husbands and men for the community.
He’s not sure why Pope Francis would have chosen him to be an auxiliary bishop.
“Maybe Pope Francis was looking for a certain profile, and I guess I do have some of the characteristics of what he’s looking for,” he admitted. “From what he’s writing and what he’s doing and what he’s teaching us, I suppose I do have some of those characteristics, yeah.”