This story is part of a series featured in a commemorative issue honoring Bishop David O'Connell. Read more stories at the Bishop Dave Commemorative Issue web page.
Christmas 2022 was like no other for the O’Connells.
The family — nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles, most living in Ireland — were accustomed to getting together for the holidays. This year, 16 sat down for Christmas dinner in the backyard of Bishop David O’Connell’s home in Hacienda Heights to servings of ham, turkey, and sweet potato mash. It was their biggest gathering ever.
“We were thinking that if it was our last time with Uncle Dave, then it was the best time,” recalled his sister-in-law Paula O’Connell, who is wife of O’Connell’s youngest brother, Kieran.
Such moments — filled with laughter, food, and an endless supply of jokes — are what the O’Connells brought back home with them to Ireland after traveling to Los Angeles to say their last goodbyes to their uncle.
O’Connell, who was murdered Feb. 18 in his Hacienda Heights home, was laid to rest March 3 following a standing room-only funeral at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. The emotional two weeks of tributes and memorial services saw more than 10,000 turn out to pay their respects for a priest and bishop who served in some of LA’s poorest neighborhoods for much of the past 40 years.
For his relatives, he was more than “Bishop Dave.” He was also a beloved and devoted family man who took an intense interest in the lives of each of his eight nieces and nephews and was a constant source of encouragement and love — even from an ocean and a continent away.
“There aren’t words to describe how a bishop could support family life so strongly,” said Paula.
It was a bond forged by experiences of pain and joy for the family started by O’Connell’s parents, David and Joan O’Connell of County Cork, Ireland, in the 1940s.
David was born in 1953, the third of the couple’s five children. To support the family, his father maintained the family farm in Brooklodge, outside the city of Cork, while also working for a local sugar company, among other jobs.
That work ethic passed easily from father to son.
The future bishop “was always a hard worker,” Kieran said, recalling that his older brother would finish his work on the farm before everyone else — and then proceed to help them with theirs.
“He’d be the one you go to just to get the stuff done,” said Kieran, 63.
The young David was “a bit rebellious” growing up, a middle child who liked good jokes and even became “a bit wild” during his teenage years. But when it came to his calling in life, Kieran said, there never seemed to be much doubt.
“He always wanted to be a priest,” he told Angelus.
The boy’s faith was nurtured by his mother, a woman of deep devotion who would bring David on pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Knock in northwest Ireland every year. During his high school years, he enrolled at Farranferris College, the local minor seminary.
Then came a trial that would mark the family’s lives — and their faith — forever: the sudden death of the patriarch, David Sr., from a heart attack at the age of 53.
In the shock and upheaval that followed, David was “the one that kept us together,” a “connector” who made sure that each of siblings had what they needed, Kieran recalled.
Their mother turned to prayer for consolation. Prayer, too, helped O’Connell forge ahead with the difficult decision to leave for Dublin to enter the seminary.
But before leaving, O’Connell had another fateful experience that would change his life. He would tell his family the story of how one day at seminary one of his teachers, the future bishop of Cork, Father John Buckley, asked David about his plans for the summer.
“I don’t know,” David answered. “What are you doing for the summer?”
Buckley explained that he was traveling to the States to visit the newly appointed archbishop of Los Angeles, Timothy Manning, himself a Cork County native.
“Sounds exciting,” O’Connell replied.
Buckley would go on to propose to Manning that he recruit O’Connell to serve in Los Angeles as a priest. The rest is history.
“He would always say that one conversation changed his whole life,” said Paula.
Niece Ciara O’Connell remembers the day, July 10, 1979, that her Uncle Dave became “Uncle Father Dave.”
“It wasn’t like he was an uncle or a priest,” said Ciara, who was six at the time. “It just became a bigger part of him … it was an and.”
In the years that followed, O’Connell always made the most of family visits.
There were outings to Universal Studios, trips to the mountains, and dinners at restaurants they remember as “exotic.” Kieran and Paula remember arriving at LAX with their young children to find O’Connell waiting with a surprise. Once he was wearing a (fake) long ponytail, another time a green beard.
During stays at St. Frances X. Cabrini Church — located in one of the roughest parts of South LA — O’Connell would make clear that the kids were not to go beyond the parish gate. After finishing Mass one day, O’Connell discovered they had escaped by themselves to a donut shop down the street.
“He came [out of Mass] and he was nearly having a heart attack that they had gone out on their own,” said Paula, chuckling as she recalled the frantic priest running down the street in search of the children.
Other times, O’Connell, who like many of his fellow LA priests had learned Spanish in Mexico, would load them in a van full of donated food, and take them with him as he made one of his regular trips across the border to an orphanage in Tijuana, one of the many “food runs” organized by his former parish of St. Raymond in Downey.
“What a culture shock that was,” Kieran recalled.
When it was O’Connell’s turn to visit home, his nieces and nephews would pile into the family car for the two-hour ride to Shannon Airport in County Clare.
“There was no room for David, because we all wanted to go and pick him up,” remembered Ciara. “He’d have a suitcase full of gifts from Disneyland, and a small bag of his own clothes.”
The trips were opportunities to baptize his nephews and nephews, and later, to celebrate their weddings. Once, when Kieran was out of town on business, David found himself accompanying Paula to the hospital for the delivery of one of her children. (“I am a father, but I’m not the father,” she remembers O’Connell explaining with a smile.)
But even from afar, his family could see changes in “Uncle Dave.” The years after the 1992 LA Riots were a particularly “tough time” for his brother, Kieran said, as he bore the tensions of negotiations with police officials and local gangs in efforts to bring peace to South Central.
Kieran noticed that as he got older, O’Connell tried focusing more on parish and community work. His spirituality changed, too.
“I felt that his faith got more distilled, and he was more sure of his faith,” said Kieran. When it came to preaching, O’Connell “knew what he wanted to say because it came from real life experience.”
That faith became a bedrock for his nieces and nephews, who came to confide in O’Connell during visits or over the phone.
When it came to career plans, O’Connell was their number one supporter, encouraging them to trust in God’s plan and the Blessed Mother’s help in making decisions. Every text message from O’Connell, they fondly recalled, ended with his favorite signature: a green shamrock and a sunglasses emoji.
In recent years, O’Connell’s yearning for his family seemed to grow, Ciara said.
Their last moments together were spent in the chaos of the LAX Airport departures area at the end of their Christmas trip. The children were being dropped off in one car, while Kieran and Paula were being taken by O’Connell in another. The bishop wanted a quick farewell.
“Dave never liked to say goodbye to us,” said Paula. “It was too painful for him.”
The younger O’Connells were getting out several cars ahead of their uncle’s. But Paula wouldn’t let him leave until his nieces and nephews had a chance to say a proper goodbye.
On the busy terminal sidewalk they said their goodbyes, not knowing it would be their last.
“They all ran and they put their arms around him, hugging him before he left,” she remembered through tears. “Thank God we did that.”