Thursday, October 29, 2015

Father O'Connor and his nephew, Jack Kennedy

You're welcome to look for a family resemblance here between the Rev. Charles J. O'Connor (above) and his great-grandnephew, Jack Kennedy (below), who was in Chariton Wednesday to learn more about the man who was the longest-serving priest in the Sacred Heart parish --- from 1924 until his death at age 80 during 1958.

Jack, who lives in Illinois, became aware of his uncle after inheriting a poster prepared for the 1953 celebration at Sacred Heart that marked the golden anniversary jubilee of O'Connor's ordination. Now he hopes to tell the story of this fascinating guy who was born in Ireland, educated in Italy, Spain and London, ordained in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and spent the most consecutive years of his life in Lucas County.

In search of information, Jack had contacted attorney Ray Meyer (right), whose father, Virgil, had administered O'Connor's small estate, looking for information that might be contained in probate papers. Ray, who as it turns out was the last to be baptized by O'Connor, invited him to examine the file. Since I'm interested in all things related to Lucas County history, I was invited to sit in. We were joined by Fred Steinbach (left), who had vivid memories of serving as a Sacred Heart altar boy during O'Connor's tenure, as well as (via speaker phone) Fred's sister, Elizabeth Sellers, who also had many fond memories of her childhood priest.

Later on, Kennedy was able to visit Sacred Heart Church and consult with Darlene (Steinbach) Arnold, of the Lucas County Genealogical and Historical societies. That's three Steinbachs and counting, but I'm obligated to point out for the benefit of my Steinbach cousins that their father, Larry, was the first to be baptized by O'Connor after his arrival in Chariton.


Father O'Connor, as is his nephew, was "100 percent Irish," born May 21, 1878, at Castlegregory, County Kerry --- one of 13 children of Maurice and Mary (Mahoney) O'Connor. The O'Connors were farmers, occupying property that had been in the family for at least 200 years, and determined that their children should be well-educated. 

At age 15, the young Charles O'Conner was sent to Turin, Italy, to study at the college established there some years earlier by Don John Bosco's Salesians (officially, the Society of St. Francis de Sales). After four years of study in Turin were complete, he moved on to Santander, Spain, where he studied philosophy, also for four years, then spent the final years of his formal education studying theology at the Salesian college at Battersea, London.

By this time, his health had been seriously affected by turberculosis and he was advised to move to a drier climate if he had any hope of survival. His physicians suggested Egypt --- or Wyoming (a place O'Connor had never heard of). He chose the latter, however, and was ordained a priest in Cheyenne on Dec. 22, 1903.

O'Conner worked for some years as a missionary priest in Wyoming, Green River among other places, but as The Chariton Leader story about his 1953 jubilee puts it, Wyoming was "a state he never learned to love." As a result, he moved from the arid West to green Iowa and served 17 years as assistant priest at Visitation Church in Des Moines. He then was assigned briefly to St. Patrick's Church at Bayard and on July 1, 1924, was assigned as priest in the Sacred Heart parish of Chariton.


Father O'Connor arrived in Chariton at an interesting time. Ku Klux Klan activity in Lucas County was at its height that year --- and Catholics were among the targets of that despicable organization. The Klan purchased a former church building here during April of 1924 as headquarters, a huge Klan rally was held in town during August --- the month after O'Connor's reassignment to Lucas County --- and a cross reportedly was burned that year at Sacred Heart Church. 

The preacher of the local Christian Church was a leading proponent of the Klan and its members were active in other protestant congregations in the community, including the United Brethren. 

The Klan didn't care for "foreigners" either --- and Lucas County's mining industry had during the preceding 10 years drawn many immigrants here from Croatia, Italy, France and elsewhere; many of them Catholics and communicants of Sacred Heart.

None of this seems to have intimidated O'Connor --- the Klan faded and he persevered.

As the years passed, he became perhaps the most widely known and popular cleric in Chariton. He was alarmingly well educated and followed national and world affairs closely. So he frequently was invited to address civic groups, students and others on topics ranging from religion to world affairs.

He also was a prolific poet --- his works were published frequently in the Chariton newspapers. And he was an equally prolific writer of letters to the editor, both in Chariton and elsewhere.

The Des Moines Register published a tribute to Father O'Connor as he was preparing to celebrate his jubilee during 1953 which read in part as follows: "Father O'Connor's pungent, highly distinctive style is well known to readers of The Register, which has been printing his contributions on all sorts of subjects over the years .... Father O'Connor has often been extremely critical of The Register, on everything from the Spanish civil war to the Iowa-Notre Dame football game, and we welcome his criticisms .... The Register has been a livelier paper for his contributions and for the challenge of his scrutiny and his ideas. Long may he shepherd his flock, long may he write for his wider flock."

O'Connor had only a few more years to shepherd his flock, however. The lifelong health issues involving his lungs seem finally to have caught up with him during late summer of 1958. After weeks of treatment at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines he was transferred to University Hospitals in Iowa City, where he died on Wednesday, Nov. 19. The bishop of the Diocese of Des Moines was principal celebrant during the funeral Mass held at Sacred Heart on the Friday following and his remains were taken to St. Ambrose Cemetery in Des Moines for burial.


O'Connor's siblings all lived and died in Ireland, England and elsewhere, so he had very few family members in the United States. A niece, Sister Mary Celsus, then teaching at Marycrest College in Davenport, was the only family representative at funeral services in Chariton. Jack Kennedy's grandmother, also a niece, emigrated many years after her uncle's arrival in the United States, but her home was in New York.

I think Father O'Connor would be gratified to know that a nephew a couple of generations removed visited his long-time home this week --- and plans to tell his story.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Growing up in Chariton in the 1950's, I remember Father O'Connor very well. I came from a large family and all of my brothers served as alter boys for Father. He taught us our Catechism lessons on Saturday afternoon, but I recall he would cut things short if there was a Notre Dame football game on TV or the radio. I also recall his maps of the Holy Land and Jerusalem and an assortment of other places from biblical times. Father would have his pointer stick and would walk us through the the bible and, in particular, the path of Jesus as he traveled during his time preaching and in Jerusalem. I have many other personal recollections of Father O'Connor who was a great friend of my parents and a much admired pastor of his Sacred Heart flock.