By THERESA KINZLY, Commentary | Published November 18, 2016
We heard about Father Edward O’Connor before we met him.
Friends from St. Mary’s Church in Rome told us about the church bulletins that he wrote that parishioners not only read, but saved and shared. Those bulletins were famous for funny comments, cartoon-style speech bubbles, and especially little comical drawings.
Every note and Christmas card from Father O’Connor included multiple laughs, drawings, comments about every family member, and, of course, ended with a tiny shamrock “growing” out of his signature. That little shamrock was so much a part of his persona that the stained glass window at St. Theresa Church, Douglasville, includes a shamrock in honor of Father O’Connor, the founding pastor.
When Father O’Connor came to Douglasville to start the new parish, we only had the rectory, which was a house at the dead end of a street. While Sunday Mass was celebrated in an office complex, Father O’Connor willingly made the rectory available as a gathering place. The yearly Easter egg hunts were held in the backyard. We assembled long tables half the length of the house to organize and wrap Christmas angel tree gifts. The living room became the RCIA classroom. The great room was arranged as a chapel, where he offered daily Mass. The coffee, tea and conversations shared at the dining room table after daily Mass became so popular (and lengthy) that he eventually had to post what time everyone needed to leave so he could get some work done.
Building a new church required many committees and frequent meetings. At many of those meetings, he brought up that there was one thing that was very important to him. “I don’t want a church building that has lights that require climbing a ladder to change the bulbs.” (He didn’t want to do it, and he didn’t want to pay the insurance because someone else had to do it.) He was repeatedly reassured that that was possible. However, if you look inside St. Theresa, you’ll see that you do, in fact, need a ladder to change the light bulbs. In typical Father O’Connor fashion, saying “light bulbs” became code for something that one wanted, but probably couldn’t have.
Another thing that Father O’Connor was insistent about was that he never, ever wanted to be surprised. And he meant it. Everything from a surprise party to a last minute public prayer request was positively not allowed. Once, just as a (non-Catholic) memorial service was about to begin, I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t told him that the family wanted him to make some comments at the end, so I hurried to tell him. He listened and with a straight face said, “It’s a good thing that you remembered now, because if it had been any later, we’d be having two funerals!”
At one point, the funds for the new church were lagging and we were in danger of not being able to proceed with our plans. He stood in front of us and explained the situation, then said he had a solution. He pulled out his own checkbook and wrote a check for a thousand dollars and challenged us to do the same. It worked, and building began.
One Sunday during Mass in the new St. Theresa church building, Father O’Connor got up to do a homily and asked a couple of children to come up to help him. He handed the children a huge poster with a large number printed on it. He stationed the children off to the side with the number clearly visible to the congregation and then proceeded with the homily. Come to find out, the number was the amount of the monthly mortgage payment. We were not collecting enough money to comfortably pay the mortgage and the other bills. Anytime the collection was lagging, he’d remind us of our financial obligations by repeating the process of having a child hold up the sign in front of the congregation while he continued with the homily.
You cannot remember Father O’Connor without smiling. If you were with him, chances are that you were laughing. His sense of humor was truly phenomenal. He could take the simplest fact or most obscure memory and turn it into a joke. He also remembered many of the funny stories and would recycle his favorites every time you saw him.
Once, at Holy Trinity, we hadn’t raised the full amount of our part of the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal. He stood at the ambo and said that he was going to a meeting with a lot of other priests. He said he was so ashamed that we hadn’t raised the money that he was about to show us what he was going to wear to the meeting. Then he pulled out a large paper grocery bag, put it over his head and looked at us through the two eyeholes he’d cut out. If he’d charged by the laughs and chuckles, he’d have raised plenty of money that day!
Leading by example
Father O’Connor did so much more than make us laugh. He was a kind and loving leader, a true father figure. When he could tell that you had something serious on your mind, his face radiated his concern. He was a calm and reassuring listener.
At a Mass when St. Theresa was still new, during the chorus of the song “Here I Am, Lord,” Father O’Connor spontaneously raised his hand. The rest of us kind of looked around, then we started raising our hands, too, and a tradition was born. Although those who were children have grown up and many of us have moved away, whenever we sing “Here I am, Lord … I will go, Lord … ” we can still picture Father O’Connor with his hand up, leading us through that part of our lives.
At the end of a daily Mass, Father O’Connor always said, “Thanks, all!” as he walked away from the altar. The people always responded, “Thank you, Father.” The last time we visited him, he seemed reluctant to say goodbye. We told him we loved him and when we planned to come back to visit. He gave us his priestly blessing and as we walked out, he thanked us for coming. Now it’s time to respond, “Thank you, Father, for everything!”