During his seven years as auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles, Bishop David G. O’Connell made many friends — and a strong impression — among his brother bishops.
The native of County Cork, Ireland was one of three priests named auxiliary bishops for Los Angeles by Pope Francis in July 2015. The pope was known to refer privately to O’Connell, Chicago-born media evangelist Father Robert Barron, and LA priest Msgr. Joseph Brennan as “Archbishop Gomez’s triplets.”
In his often emotional remarks about Bishop O’Connell in the days since his Feb. 18 murder, LA Archbishop José H. Gomez has described him as “a man who loved Jesus Christ, and gave his whole life to following Jesus, to being his friend, and to helping others to find Jesus.”
And in interviews with Angelus, bishops from around the country and even across the pond in England expressed admiration for O’Connell’s energetic faith, his ability to work with all types of people, and his kindness.
“If you had to write a play about his life, it would be ‘A Man for All Seasons,’” said Bishop Brennan, who left LA in 2019 to lead the Diocese of Fresno. “He was ‘all things to people,’ as St. Paul described his mission.”
O’Connell and Brennan were ordained priests for the Los Angeles Archdiocese a year apart in 1979 and 1980.
“I remember thinking, here’s this great Irish guy, hope he does well, ” said Brennan, who is also of Irish descent. “Little did I know he was already working circles around us native guys, just in terms of totally immersing himself in the community.”
Brennan said that O’Connell had a special way of “making everyone feel that he was a kindred spirit to them,” from community organizers to law enforcement officials.
“And he was,” Brennan added. “But Dave was never a chameleon. He was never pretending to be any of these things. He did it because he was genuinely interested in everyone, wanting to love everyone.”
Bishop Barron, who now heads the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota, said he was “absolutely devastated” by the news of O’Connell’s death.
“He was a man of enormous kindness, dedication, good humor, and Gospel simplicity,” Barron told Angelus. “I always came away from meetings with him feeling more alive, more confirmed in my faith. I will miss him tremendously.”
O’Connell served in the archdiocese for all of Cardinal Roger Mahony’s 25 years as archbishop of Los Angeles.
Mahony recalled that “his entire life and ministry were devoted to his people, those who were poor, powerless, and on the margins of society,” praising O’Connell’s ability to bring people together and to work to overcome differences and build trust and understanding.
He also said that O’Connell had “made it clear that he never wanted to be moved away from Central and South Central LA” when it came to his parish assignments.
Brennan agreed that O’Connell would often express privately that “he didn’t want to be anywhere else. He loved that ministry, he loved those people”
Among current American bishops, there are two other Bishop O’Connells, including Bishop David O’Connell of Trenton, New Jersey.
The third, Auxiliary Bishop Mark O’Connell of Boston, first met LA’s Bishop O’Connell at “Baby Bishop School,” the unofficial name of a multiday course for new bishops held at the Vatican.
“He was a truly humble and holy man,” he told Angelus.
The 58-year-old said the pair called each other “cousins,” since they shared not only a last name but also family roots in County Cork.
His LA counterpart later recruited him to serve on the U.S. bishops’ subcommittee for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, where he made an impression as “a very strong advocate for the poor and for the dignity of every human person.”
Auxiliary Bishop Tim Freyer of the neighboring Diocese of Orange, California was another one of O’Connell’s recruits to the subcommittee.
“We had a number of challenging issues to discuss, and I marveled at how he kept the conversation rooted in prayer, focused on how to best help the poor, and would bring us to consensus,” Freyer recalled.
Freyer said that he would bump into O’Connell on walks during silent retreats for bishops, and O’Connell would be either praying the rosary or the Liturgy of the Hours.
“I found that he was a man of deep faith, was very thoughtful and joyful,” he said.
Phoenix Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo Nevares remembers O’Connell’s episcopal consecration at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels Sept. 17, 2015, as a “very Spirit-filled event.”
In meetings of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops through the years, O’Connell struck him as a “gentle” colleague with “great insights.”
Nevares and O’Connell shared dinner at the U.S. bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore last November.
“I knew him to be a very special person, a real brother,” said Nevares. “I consider myself lucky and privileged to have known such a wonderful Christian.”
Bishop John Sherrington, an auxiliary bishop of Westminster, England, taught as a young priest at O’Connell’s alma mater, All Hallows College in Dublin, during the 1990s.
Future priests destined for Southern California were still being formed there, and Sherrington wanted some firsthand experience of ministry in the City of Angels.
In the summer of 1991, he arrived to help at St. Frances X. Cabrini Church in South Central LA while the pastor, then-Father David O’Connell, took some vacation time.
“I realized very quickly the love that the people had for him, and his passion for justice,” said Sherrington.
O’Connell had already made a reputation for his efforts to reconcile rival gangs in his parish neighborhood, O’Connell was also pushing for the cleanup of a toxic dump near the parish at the time, Sherrington recalled.
The arrangement worked out so well that O’Connell invited Sherrington back to St. Frances the next two summers. Almost two decades later, Sherrington was named a bishop in his native England in 2011, four years before his old friend.
“When [O’Connell] was appointed a bishop by Pope Francis, I thought: This is the sort of priest who for Pope Francis is a priest of the peripheries. A priest who goes the extra mile, who’s on the edge of situations, living out the Gospel and living out the message of Christ,” Sherrington said.
As LA Catholics prepare for Bishop O’Connell’s funeral next week, his longtime friend, Bishop Brennan from Fresno offered some thoughts on his legacy.
“We need to channel our inner Dave O’Connell, defender of life everywhere,” Brennan said. “We need to be tenacious when it comes to reaching out to folks, as Pope Francis keeps telling us. Dave actually did it: going out to the people who are unwelcome, marginalized, on the peripheries.”