Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


‘A Fine And Generous Parish Priest’ Remembered

By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published July 8, 2010

In 1966 Mike Stephens was a young boy when his father died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack. At this terrible time, the parish priest at St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro stepped forward and helped Mike’s mother and the family of six children, ranging from high school to preschool, manage.

In 2000 a Sri Lankan came to Atlanta, knowing no one, and started going to Mass at St. Jude Church in Sandy Springs. The same parish priest, now in his last pastorate, noticed him and took him under his wing, becoming a father figure and a role model.

The stories, spanning 35 years, were told outside the wake service held June 23 at St. Jude Church for Msgr. Daniel J. O’Connor, a Hartford, Conn., native and archdiocesan priest for almost 50 years.

Because he had been driving him to medical appointments, Stephens was with Msgr. O’Connor, who had been battling cancer, when he died June 16 at the age of 78.

Chris Gnanapragasam, the Sri Lankan immigrant, spoke to Msgr. O’Connor on the phone that morning, as he did every day. “Every day I went to see him so he would know he was not forgotten,” he said.

Both said the retired priest and pastor held an irreplaceable spot in their lives and hearts.

“There were lots of people he helped,” Stephens said.

“My mother wouldn’t have been able to survive,” without the priest’s practical acts of friendship in 1966, he said. “She didn’t know how to drive. She didn’t know how to write a check.”

The founding pastor of St. Philip Benizi in Jonesboro, the priest gave her a job at the church and drafted men in the parish to help her learn to drive and manage in other ways. He came over after the last Mass every Sunday to eat supper with the family and cheer everyone up, Stephens said. “He took all of us under his wing.”

“We loved that man,” he said.

“You come here to a country where you don’t know anybody and you find somebody who really lends a hand to you—and there you are,” said Gnanapragasam, who went from computer science to pastoral ministry after meeting the priest and works at St. Jude.

“Write this—he was an example of how a priest should be,” he said.

Similar words came from speakers at the wake and at the funeral Mass held at the Cathedral of Christ the King on June 24.

Frank Murphy, St. Jude parishioner, said that when his wife, Yvonne, died eight years ago, Msgr. O’Connor contacted him and over time they became good friends and he jokingly referred to himself as the priest’s “aide-de-camp.”

An Army veteran and Army Reserve chaplain, the priest was described by many people as strict and firm, but with an inner compassion that was quite different from his exterior.

“He had a military façade. He was soft on the inside,” Murphy said.

Fighting back tears, the speaker at the wake said, “No one here … loved him any more than I have.”

After retiring from active ministry, Msgr. O’Connor lived in a house near St. Jude’s and used to have dinners for widowers, where his precision extended to the right way of cooking or grilling or preparing martinis or serving coffee.

“He was such a joy to be around. I would know when it was time to leave. He would offer to give me his blessing. I knew it was time to find the door,” Murphy said.

At the same time, he was “a strong example of faith and holiness,” Murphy said.

“There are so many people from so many parishes where Father Dan ministered that experienced how much he impacted them.”

In addition to St. Philip Benizi and St. Jude, Msgr. O’Connor was pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Alpharetta, and Sacred Heart Church, Atlanta, as well as a former Catholic high school teacher, principal, superintendent and Secretary for Education of the archdiocese. He also pioneered evangelization programs to reach inactive Catholics. He was named a monsignor in 1994.

At the wake, a combined choir of singers from St. Jude, St. Thomas Aquinas and Sacred Heart sang, under the direction of Alan Brown. Soprano Jeanné Brown sang the “Pie Jesu” from Faure’s “Requiem,” a request made by Msgr. O’Connor.

At the funeral Mass at the Cathedral, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory spoke to the O’Connor family, thanking them “from the heart for the gift of this wonderful man.”

Just as the recently concluded Year for Priests provided a time for lay people to “say some of those things that often go unsaid” to the priests who have impacted their lives and families, “I suspect the last few months in the life of Daniel J. O’Connor provided a similar opportunity,” the archbishop said.

“He no doubt felt somewhat awkward and maybe even embarrassed by the extra attention. … Priests are people who usually work in quiet and unnoticed ways … and most of us prefer it that way,” he said.

“The word of God and faith of the Church are the constants in a priest’s life. … Fidelity is a gift that comes from God and is nurtured by faith and lived in love. … Dan was a faithful priest. … He preached the word when it was well received and when it was not.”

“Above all, he was a fine and generous parish priest,” the archbishop said.

He noted that the church was “filled with friends he cultivated and kept over all the years.”

“Those friendships meant the world to him as I am sure they do to you,” he said to the congregation.

Over 80 priests of the archdiocese concelebrated the funeral Mass, with principal concelebrants including Bishop Luis Zarama, Father Frank McNamee, Father Pedro Poloche, Father Richard Morrow, Msgr. Joseph Corbett. Also concelebrating were visiting priest friends. One who spoke said Msgr. O’Connor “was certainly an exceptional person.”

People chuckled when he said one of Msgr. O’Connor’s virtues was “pride” and that he took pride and found happiness “in all he did.”

“He was proud he was able to act as a priest … proud of his mother and father, proud of his Irish heritage,  … proud and loyal.”

His precision extended to prayer. He kept a shoebox of memorial Mass cards, organized by month. Each day he would take out those for that day and remember the people and their intentions as he celebrated Mass.

At Arlington Cemetery, Msgr. O’Connor was buried in the priest section with military honors. His casket, which had been covered with a white pall at church, was flag-draped at the burial. Taps were played, a volley of guns fired in salute and the flag was solemnly folded and presented to his family.

A final word was requested by one of his cousins at the gravesite.

“Say that his cousin, Richard O’Connor of Dublin, Ohio, said, ‘He was a good man, a good priest and a good friend.’”