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Obituary of Bishop Edward O'Donnell: Civil rights leader, beloved pastor

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 7, 2009 - More than 1,000 people gathered at the St. Louis Cathedral Saturday for a Memorial Mass for Bishop Edward O’Donnell.

He died Sunday Feb. 1, shortly after watching the Super Bowl at St. Agnes Home in Kirkwood, where he had lived for several years. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for more than a decade. He was 77.

While he never was the St. Louis archbishop, he served as its sole temporary shepherd, its administrator, for 15 months, in 1993 and 1994, while Archbishop John L. May was suffering from fatal brain cancer. Scores of St. Louis priests and lay Catholics wrote the papal representative in Washington imploring that the civil rights leader and beloved pastor  become May’s full time replacement. Under Pope John Paul II, the Vatican rarely made a hometown priest its archbishop in key dioceses. Recent appointments by Pope Benedict including Detroit ‘s new archbishop shifted that policy.

After Saturday’s Memorial Mass - as bishops, priests and lay people lingered on the cathedral steps - many said that the joyful O’Donnell was one of the most beloved bishops in the long history of the St. Louis Archdiocese.

More than 70 priests walked in procession and concelebrated the 90-minute Mass. They included six Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana bishops, bishop-elect Richard Stika (to be installed March 19 in Knoxviile, Tenn. ) and Archbishop Timothy Dolan (a St. Louisan now shepherd to Milwaukee Catholics and, as the Beacon published last spring, likely to be the next New York archbishop). Bishop Robert Hermann, administrator of the St. Louis Archdiocese was the main celebrant. The St. Louis Cathedral Children’s Choir sang.

Bishop O’Donnell spent all but seven of his 52 years as a priest in St. Louis. For 10 years, he served as an auxiliary bishop here, confirming thousands of Catholics; for 13 years as a vicar general, and for 12 years as editor of its newspaper.

Eight months after Cardinal Justin F. Rigali was named St. Louis Archbishop, Bishop O’Donnell accepted Pope John Paul II’s appointment as bishop of Lafayette, La. His service in Louisiana was cut short when illness forced him to retire in 2002. Years before it became a Catholic bishops’ policy nationally, he announced in Lafayette “zero tolerance” for priests who abused children. Anyone with one credible accusation was removed from public ministry. After he retired, he immediately returned to St. Louis where his large extended family and life-long friends strove to keep him as independent as possible.

In his farewell column in the Lafayette diocesan newspaper, The Acadiana Catholic, Bishop O’Donnell wrote: “I will miss the diocese and its people. I will be forever grateful to the Pope for his confidence in entrusting such a joyous position to me as bishop. I cannot say that I have accomplished as much as I would have wanted to. I only wish I had been given more good years of health so that I could work as I had become accustomed to, with energy, with joy and with effectiveness.”

O’Donnell’s tenure as the “top hat” in St. Louis spanned the Great Flood of 1993. From Portage des Sioux to Ste. Genevieve, he frequently drove his four-wheel drive black car over debris-laden back roads to help sand bag and pray with Catholics and people of other faiths as they tried to save their homes and churches.

Early in his priesthood, he co-founded the Archdiocesan Human Rights Office, which worked with parishes to raise consciousness about racial equality. In 1965, he led a group of St. Louis Catholic priests, nuns, lay adults persons and college students to join with religious people from around the nation in a march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., just one week after a group of blacks had been blocked by Alabama authorities on the route. The Civil Rights Museum in Memphis displays a photograph of him in a row of marchers at that pivotal civil rights protest.

For years he headed the Archdiocese’s Radio and Television Apostolate and ran several programs locally including moderating “Quiz A Catholic” often featuring Catholic high school students. He appeared monthly in discussion with leaders of other faiths on KMOX radio. From 1970 to 1981 under his editorship of the St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan weekly, the paper won prizes for opening readers hearts to the Civil Rights movement and explaining bishops’ documents issued at the Second Vatican Council.

He founded and for nine years he served as the director of the archdiocese’s Pro-Life Committee. He often said protection of the fetus in its mother womb was a human rights issue. The committee was one of the first in a U.S. diocese to focus on providing alternatives to abortion to women of all faiths.

The bishop was a St. Louis native who, after graduating from Kenrick Seminary in Shrewsbury, was ordained a priest in 1957. He served in many parishes. For years, he coached an eighth grade baseball team and delighted in taking his teams to Cardinals games. He was a popular pastor at each parish where he served even decades after he left, Jefferson City Bishop John Gaydos said.

Gaydos found one weakness the bishop’s poor “Pontifical regalia fashion intelligence.” Once O’Donnell became a bishop, priests at his Immacolata Parish in Richmond Heights made an effort to adjust his miter and other episcopal vestments. Many in the pews laughed and a man said in an extraordinarily loud whisper: “Thank, God,” - clearly a jibe at fussy bishops who flourish non-essential capes and extra lace.

On the cathedral steps, Archbishop Dolan talked about what a fine priest and mentor O’Donnell was. Both Irish-American prelates share big warm personalities and remarkable ability to remember names.

St. Louis author James Adams, who as a St. Louis Review reporter reported to Bishop O’Donnell, described him as embracing the teaching of the bishops at the Second Vatican Council with much love.

Near the end of Mass, Hermann read a letter from Rabbi Jeffery Stiffman, the retired leader of Shaare Emeth Congregation in Creve Coeur. The rabbi and bishop were friends since the pair did an interfaith radio show together on KMOX. The rabbi called Bishop O’Donnell a “pioneer interfaith leader” who was frank about theological differences the two had, embraced those they shared and was convinced that interfaith leaders could do much together to benefit the whole St. Louis community.

Near the conclusion of the Memorial Mass, Hermann laughed and said that Bishop O’Donnell got the last word. A breezy, witty letter he wrote and sealed when he turned 64 with orders it not be read until he had died, was read.

It included the lines:

“If anyone ever asks you if you know a really happy person, then tell them about me,” he wrote. He advised a string of male Purcell and Cochran nephews and cousins to consider becoming priests because when he went to bed at night, he found “satisfaction that he had made a difference that day, not because of him but because of his faith.”

In the letter, he told his mourners not to cry but to get to know each other. He declared that his family and friends would like each other. And on the church steps many embraced as he directed.

His casket was rolled out of the cathedral and is en route to Lafayette La. Monday, Bishop Michael Jarrell will say the funeral Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. Following Catholic tradition that a bishop is buried in his cathedral, Bishop O’Donnell’s body will be entombed at St. John’s.

Patricia Rice is a long time religion reporter.

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