Nearly 900 parishioners and Catholics from around the Archdiocese of Los Angeles gathered to pay tribute to the late Bishop David G. O’Connell at a special Feb. 23 Mass at St. John Vianney Church in Hacienda Heights, the parish where he lived for the last seven years. 

“He is bishop, martyr, and saint in every way,” declared pastor Msgr. Timothy Nichols during his homily. Nichols, who was close friends with the 69-year-old O’Connell for more than two decades, didn’t try to hide his own pain during the Mass. 

“I had the difficult moment of seeing Bishop in his house at his death," he continued, speaking both in English and Spanish during the bilingual service. “It is a vision that sticks in my brain. I stand before you with a broken heart.”

O’Connell’s body was discovered just before 1 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 18. Two days later, police arrested the husband of O’Connell’s housekeeper after a standoff in Torrance. 61-year-old Carlos Medina has since confessed to the murder, but no motive has been determined.

O’Connell had spent all day Friday at St. John Vianney for a day of reflection with parish staff members in Deanery 12. That evening, after returning home, he called Nichols to ask if he could be put on the schedule to celebrate the 10 a.m. Mass there that Sunday. 

“He was serving until the very end,” Nichols said, his voice tightening with emotion. “He was totally committed to the Lord. His relationship with Christ was intimate and personal, and anybody who met him felt the power of Jesus in his heart.”

Sisters Poor of Jesus Christ bring up the gifts for the Eucharist at St. John Vianney Church in Hacienda Heights Feb. 23. (John Rueda)

That “power” is what drew Regina Graziano to O’Connell, whom she met five years ago when he celebrated Mass at her parish, Epiphany Catholic Church in South El Monte.

“I was amazed by that experience,” she said. “I’ve been to Mass my whole life, but that day, I really felt the strong presence of the Holy Spirit.”

Graziano recalled that after receiving Communion, O’Connell asked the congregation to sit down and close their eyes. “He asked us to repeat together: Jesus, I trust you. Jesus, I love you. And a lot of us had tears in our eyes,” she said. “It healed me.”

Jaime Rendon of Nativity Church in El Monte attended the Thursday night Mass, “to pray for Bishop and tell him how much he inspired me.” He first met him in 2018 when O’Connell invited a group of seminarians, priests, and religious sisters to his home to discuss vocations to the priesthood. 

“He was so kind. He wanted us to feel at home and talk to one another,” Rendon remembered. “He said, ‘My house is your house, mi casa es su casa.’ ”

Rendon, who serves as a Knight of Columbus, was also moved when O’Connell joined the Knights’ prayer line in front of an abortion clinic during a 40 Days For Life vigil a few years ago. 

“It’s rare for a bishop to do that,” he said. “He prayed the rosary with us and blessed us. He gave us hope.” 

Theresa Nedry-Molinaro, a cantor and longtime parishioner of St. John Vianney, described O’Connell as “a quiet, holy man who made a huge impact.” She remembered when, during the COVID-19 shutdown of churches in 2020, O’Connell carried a monstrance with the holy Eucharist to the top of the nearby San Jose Hills, from which he blessed Los Angeles, Orange, and San Bernardino counties and prayed for those suffering from the pandemic. 

“That was very unusual and so powerful,” she said.

Still, Nedry-Molinaro believes that “God brings out good from evil, all the time.”

“Not sometimes, not maybe, but every single time,” she said, fighting back tears. “God cannot be stopped.”

Nichols hacienda heights

Msgr. Nichols speaks to visitors after the Feb. 23 Mass for the repose of the soul of Bishop O’Connell. (John Rueda)

She and others recalled O’Connell’s infectious laugh and penchant for telling jokes. Even Nichols broke into an Irish brogue during his homily to imitate O’Connell’s joke-telling, sending waves of laughter and applause throughout the church.

“He always wanted to bring a sense of joy, of lightness,” said Sister Maria Goretti of the Sisters Poor of Jesus Christ, who attended the Mass with several members of their order. She believes O’Connell was “absolutely a saint,” always asking how he could support their ministry to the poor on Skid Row, the drug-addicted, and to the victims of human trafficking.

Sister Maria said the murder of O’Connell has shaken her deeply. “For me, he died on the battlefield. His battlefield. The man who murdered him was the last person he ministered to on this earth. I have no doubt.” 

She said she took comfort in O’Connell’s deep devotion to our Blessed Mother. “He used to say, ‘Our Blessed Mother has got me covered,’” she recalled. “I know, when he died, he was not alone. She was with him.”

While Thursday night’s Mass was organized by the parish, St. John Vianney will host a San Gabriel Pastoral Region memorial Mass for O’Connell on Wednesday at 7 p.m., the beginning of a three-day farewell culminating in a funeral Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels Friday, March 3 at 11:00 a.m.

Sister Maria knows that the local Catholic community is praying for the man who murdered O’Connell, because “that is what Bishop taught us.” 

“This man is in our hearts, and we must pray for his conversion. This is our faith, and this is what Bishop would have done. And he’s teaching us now, for sure.”