Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop David G. O’Connell, a native of Ireland who spent most of his four decades as a priest ministering in LA’s inner city, has died. He was 69.
“I am very sad this afternoon to report that our beloved Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell has passed away unexpectedly,” said Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles in a statement Feb. 18 soon after receiving word of his death. “It is a shock and I have no words to express my sadness.”
During Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels the next day, Archbishop Gomez announced that the LA County Sheriff’s Department had confirmed to the archdiocese earlier that morning that investigators had ruled his death a homicide. The Sheriff’s department has not offered further details on the circumstances of his death, which is under investigation.
“Bishop Dave,” as he was known, was episcopal vicar for the archdiocese’s San Gabriel Pastoral Region since 2015, when Pope Francis named him an auxiliary bishop.
In his statement, Archbishop Gomez said O’Connell will be remembered as “a man of deep prayer who had a great love for our Blessed Mother.”
“He was a peacemaker with a heart for the poor and the immigrant, and he had a passion for building a community where the sanctity and dignity of every human life was honored and protected,” the archbishop said.
“He was also a good friend, and I will miss him greatly,” continued Archbishop Gomez, who asked for prayers for the bishop and his family in Ireland.
“May Our Lady of Guadalupe wrap him in the mantle of her love, and may the angels lead him into paradise, and may he rest in peace,” said the archbishop.
Born in County Cork, Ireland in 1953, O’Connell studied for the priesthood at All Hallows College in Dublin and was ordained to serve in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1979. After ordination, he served as associate pastor in several parishes and as pastor at St. Frances X. Cabrini Church, Ascension Church, St. Eugene Church, and St. Michael Church — all in South LA.
There, O’Connell ministered to a community afflicted by gang violence, poverty, broken families, as well as tensions between locals and members of the Los Angeles Police Department and the LA Sheriff’s Department. Those tensions eventually boiled over during the LA riots in 1992 that followed the videotaped beating of Rodney King by police officers.
The riots broke out during Father O’Connell’s first tour at St. Frances X. Cabrini Church (1988-1998). O’Connell would later tell how he was in Washington, D.C., testifying before a panel on Capitol Hill about violence in urban America when the riots started. He came home days later to find widespread destruction in much of his parish’s territory.
Apart from aiding neighborhood recovery efforts, O’Connell pushed to restore trust between the inner-city residents and law enforcement. He and other local faith leaders helped organize meetings with police officers in people’s homes and provide opportunities for dialogue and reconciliation.
As a pastor, O’Connell also saw firsthand the effect of broken families on the community. That inspired him to organize retreats for men — usually in the mountains — focusing on how to be good fathers and husbands, something he saw as key to the health of a community.
During his time as auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles, evangelization, pastoral care for immigrants, and ensuring the future of his region’s Catholic schools were all top priorities for O’Connell, who believed that “parishes and schools are powerful instruments of transformation of people's lives and of neighborhoods.”
In his role as episcopal vicar for the archdiocese’s San Gabriel Pastoral Region, it fell to O’Connell to accompany the parish community of Mission San Gabriel, the oldest Catholic outpost in the archdiocese, when it was almost completely destroyed in an arson attack in July 2020. O’Connell was at the scene hours after the early morning fire, rosary in hand, to grieve and pray with shocked parishioners.
He later described his role in the rebuilding of the historic church as one “of support and encouragement.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Connell made headlines when he led a blessing of the San Gabriel Valley and surrounding areas as he held up a monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament from a nearby lookout.
Looking back on the impact of the pandemic, O’Connell remarked that Covid-19 “has done a lot of damage not just to our health but to our hearts and souls.”
“We’ve been forced to draw back from each other. The danger is when we accept that as normal,” said O’Connell in an interview before being honored for his service to the community and the Church in LA with the Evangelii Gaudium Award from St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo last year.
“I think we have to bring the joy of the Gospels that Pope Francis talks about — reaching out to each other and serving each other,” he said. “We need to rebuild the fabric of our relationships so we can be a hopeful world.”
He was the chairman of the interdiocesan Southern California Immigration Task Force, helping coordinate the local church’s response to the influx of migrants from Central America in recent years and navigating the challenges presented by changing immigration policies.
At the national level, O’Connell was the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
But despite his long list of accolades and accomplishments, O’Connell was known as a low-key priest with a down-to-earth demeanor and an Irish brogue he never bothered to try hiding. Those who knew him testify that he seemed most at ease with the working people he spent all those years with in South LA.
“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,” O’Connell said after being named a bishop in 2015. “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.”
Editor's note: This is a breaking news story and will be updated with new details as they become available.