Hibernia: Passings

Cardinal O'Connor.

By Irish America Staff
August / September 2000

John Cardinal O’Connor

Cardinal John O’Connor, the archbishop of the New York Archdiocese, died on May 3 at the age of 80 at his residence in New York City. The cause was cardiopulmonary arrest, a result of his battle with brain cancer. With his passing, the Vatican lost a powerful spokesman and Irish America lost a valuable ally.

Cardinal O’Connor was appointed to the post of archbishop of the 10-county diocese of New York in 1984 (he was elevated to cardinal the following year) and didn’t hesitate to inject church teaching into civic debate. He would carefully study both sides of an issue, but when it came to church teaching, he was unequivocal, and forcefully so, and was not afraid to express a challenging or unpopular position. He was particularly vocal about the Catholic church’s opposition to abortion, and was savvy in his use of the media as a means of communicating church teaching to the public at large.

In a 1986 interview with this magazine, he described his appreciation of his Irish heritage: “I think that in my student years I was very conscious of my Irish heritage. I became an avid reader of the Irish literary renaissance writers. I became immersed in the works of Patrick Pearse, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Padraic Colum, the Irish poets of the day and the essayists of the day. That gave me a certain intensity of feeling about the country.”

Intensity of feeling would be an apt characterization for much of O’Connor’s career as archbishop of the New York Archdiocese, along with a searing intellect and wonderful sense of humor, all of which he brought to play in the debate about Northern Ireland and in his service to Irish Americans.

In 1984, he was one of four priests to travel to Northern Ireland on a fact-finding mission to investigate human rights violations and urge Britain to find a political solution to “The Troubles.”

The following year he earned the ire of both the Irish and British governments when he refused to boycott the St. Patrick’s Day Parade after Peter King, then comptroller of Nassau County and a supporter of Sinn Féin and Noraid, was elected grand marshal. As he pointed out to our magazine in 1986, “My responsibility as archbishop of New York is towards the people of New York…my obligation as an American citizen is toward American citizens and I try to carry out these obligations.

“I try to the best of my ability to gather all the information that I can from all sources. I talk with people I trust, think about it, pray about it, and then present to the Irish-American community in New York what seems to me to be the most morally responsible position.”

Cardinal O’Connor also sided with the Irish-American community on the extradition of Joe Doherty. A member of the I.R.A., Doherty was arrested in New York and held on an extradition warrant. When Doherty was transferred to a remote prison in upstate New York, away from his family and lawyers, it was O’Connor who secured his return to New York City. And his support for the social services established New York as the quickest to respond to the plight of illegal Irish immigrants. Under his leadership, the archdiocese established Project Irish Outreach in 1985 to provide such needed social services as free counseling and medical care to illegal Irish immigrants.

And while many differed with his viewpoints, few could argue his integrity. The late Irish-American human rights advocate Paul O’Dwyer, a well-known New York liberal, once said of the cardinal, “The strength of his leadership so freely given in freedom’s name was never more needed.”

The Vatican has appointed another Irish American, Bishop Edward Michael Egan of Bridgeport, Connecticut, to be Cardinal O’Connor’s successor.

Rest in peace, good shepherd.


William Francis Gallagher

William Francis Gallagher.

William Francis Gallagher – an advocate for the blind and a former lrish America Top 100 honoree – died last April, after a long illness, at the age of 77.

A retired president of the American Foundation for the Blind, Massachusetts native Gallagher lost his own sight at a young age, and joined the foundation’s staff in 1972. He was named associate director for advocacy in 1978, overseeing publications, conferences and government relations. He became executive director in 1980, and president in 1989.

Born in Maynard, just outside of Boston, Gallagher graduated from Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, and then from Holy Cross in 1948, with a degree in sociology. He received a master’s degree in social work in 1950.

Gallagher’s wife, Catherine O’Brien Gallagher, died in 1990. William Gallagher is survived by a sister, Mary Langan.  ♦

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