By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published June 24, 2010
Msgr. Daniel J. O’Connor, a priest of the archdiocese for 49 years who served as Secretary for Education and as a pastor and military chaplain, died June 16 while battling adrenal cancer. He was 78 years old.
The funeral Mass for Msgr. O’Connor will be celebrated Thursday, June 24, at 1 p.m. at the Cathedral of Christ the King by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory with interment to follow at Arlington Cemetery in Sandy Springs. A wake service with overnight visitation was planned for June 23 at St. Jude Church in Atlanta, where Msgr. O’Connor retired in 2002 after serving as pastor for 11 years.
In his five decades of priesthood, Msgr. O’Connor was often in leadership at archdiocesan offices and in parishes where difficult changes were taking place—and in those circumstances he was a gifted leader, friends say. Perhaps shaped by his training in the U.S. Army, he brought stability to times of transition while trusting those around him to do what he asked of them.
“He was a wonderful challenger. He challenged me spiritually, in work ethic, and just so many ways. He was just a good man. He lived what he preached,” said Sister Valentina Sheridan, RSM. “He was a very prayerful priest, dedicated to his ministry. He was very faithful. He had great wisdom and integrity.”
Sister Valentina, who began working with Msgr. O’Connor in 1967 in Catholic education and later also worked alongside him in St. Thomas Aquinas and Sacred Heart parishes, said that the priest, who held a master’s degree in education, was “a wonderful teacher.”
“In his homilies, he taught the people. He went into the history and the background of the readings, what the Scriptures were really saying,” she said. “The people loved him, absolutely loved him.”
Ordained May 20, 1961, in Hartford, Conn., Msgr. O’Connor was drawn to the South by another legendary priest with the same last name, Msgr. P.J. O’Connor. They met at The Catholic University of America, where Msgr. P.J. often spoke of the need for priests in the Catholic mission territory of the South.
Once in Atlanta, Msgr. Daniel O’Connor began in education at a time when the Second Vatican Council and an archdiocesan synod brought about significant changes that he would be asked to implement and oversee. First a teacher and principal at St. Joseph’s High School, he was appointed Secretary for Education and superintendent of Catholic schools from 1965 to 1974. Events during that time included the closing of Drexel High School and the racial integration of the student body at St. Pius X High School; the creation of the Department of Catholic Education with responsibility for Catholic schools, religious education, and campus ministry; the forming of archdiocesan and parish boards of education; and the involvement of lay people in educational policy-making. Other priorities were the accreditation of archdiocesan elementary schools, raising teachers’ salaries, and decreasing class sizes. Between 1968 and 1972, six elementary schools were accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Sister Valentina, who was assistant superintendent and succeeded Msgr. O’Connor as superintendent, said these changes came about with stability because of his gift of delegation.
“He was able to bring all this together,” she said, in large part because “he trusted people” around him to do what they were called to do.
“If he gave you a job, he expected you to do it,” said the Mercy sister, who is now director of mission integration at Saint Joseph’s Hospital. “He never said a word afterward.”
While superintendent, he served as priest-in-charge of a fledgling Jonesboro Catholic mission and then became the first pastor of St. Philip Benizi Church when the parish was established there in June 1967 and facilitated the purchase of its 23.9-acre site on Flint River Road. Msgr. O’Connor was elected president of the Atlanta Senate of Priests from 1970 to 1972.
As pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Alpharetta from 1973 to 1983, he guided a lay-led “Operation Homecoming” program that in 1977 and 1979 evangelized the parish and inactive Catholics in the surrounding community in a comprehensive and energetic way. The program was recognized as a model of Catholic evangelization and was featured at the first National Catholic Lay Conference on Evangelization in 1979.
“He was one of the first priests in the archdiocese to catch this new drift that we should go out and reach out to these inactive Catholics,” said George Clements, a parish leader in Operation Homecoming.
Inspired by Pope Paul VI and his apostolic message on evangelization, Msgr. O’Connor was “intrigued by this,” Clements said. Knowing many Catholics had moved to metro Atlanta from the Northeast and Midwest and were not active in parishes, the program included mailbox flyers, cards for parishioners to invite friends and neighbors to the parish, a weeklong series of seminars and a one-month phone line manned by couples for anonymous callers to have their faith questions answered.
Msgr. O’Connor continued to be interested in evangelization, and they worked together on archdiocesan events, including bringing Father Ralph DiOrio, a priest with a healing ministry, to the archdiocese, Clements recalled. He also encouraged people to become active in renewal movements like Cursillo.
The priest was “a big believer in people,” Clements said.
“If he had gone into private business, he would have been a success. He had a great way of delegating things but watching from afar how it was done,” he said.
“All the bishops, they could count on this guy and they knew it,” he said.
He loved to play tennis and golf and to travel. His attention to detail most famously included the right way of making martinis, his friend said.
Before entering the seminary, Msgr. O’Connor enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 1951 at the time of the Korean War. He was sent to Germany, where he served as a radio operator. After ordination, he took a commission in 1964 as a chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserve and served until February 1992 when he retired with the rank of colonel.
Following his 10 years at St. Thomas Aquinas, he was pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Atlanta from 1983 to 1990. He was asked to pastor St. Jude Church in 1990 by then Bishop James P. Lyke, OFM, under the difficult circumstances of the resignation of Father Michael Woods. He remained there until his retirement. He was invested as a monsignor with the rank of prelate of honor in December 1994.
His dry wit never flagged, Sister Valentina said. She recently told him that she was dedicating the first decade of her nightly rosary for his intention because she wanted to make sure she completed the prayer before falling asleep. When he learned that cancer had recurred following a round of chemotherapy, he told her, “That just goes to show you one decade doesn’t do it. Stay awake and say the whole rosary.”
He vested and celebrated Mass every day in his home until several weeks ago when weakness caused him to have to do so sitting down, which was a great loss.
“During all the time of his illness, he never complained. … He said, ‘Why would I? You just accept it.’ … He expected you to accept everything,” Sister Valentina said. “He was a great inspiration to me.”
The son of the late John E. and Marie T. O’Connor, Msgr. O’Connor was predeceased by his brother, John E. O’Connor, M.D. He is survived by two sisters, Marie Muska and Anne Elizabeth Gilland, and by several nieces and nephews.
Contributions in Msgr. O’Connor’s memory may be directed to St. Jude Church, 7171 Glenridge Drive, Atlanta, GA 30328 or to Catholic Charities Atlanta, 680 West Peachtree St., NW, Atlanta, GA 30308. Messages of condolence to his family may also be sent to St. Jude Church.