My first parish priest was a true pastor: memories of Denis O’Connor RIP
I would like to tell you a little about a friend of mine who died on Saturday 9 March. Denis O’Connor was born before Christmas 1922, and was for nearly 65 years a priest in Cork & Ross diocese.
I first met him in 1984, when he and I arrived in Dennehy’s Cross parish, where he was to stay for the next 29 years (it was my first parish, so I had to move on!). One of the first things he told me was that he was surprised so few were coming to Mass there. (He said this during the summer months, which probably had the most bearing on what he saw: that and the immense size of the church.) So I, the young priest, asked him what he planned to do about it, thinking he might have great schemes up his sleeve. “We’ll just have to pray more”, he said. Which he did.
Denis was in eight different parishes, but the one in which he probably learned most was Togher. It was a new suburb of Cork city when he arrived, with a church and schools being built, and no house for a priest. He rented a corporation house, which was quite an eye-opener for him. He got a deep understanding of people in those years — certainly helped by the wafer-thin walls between the houses. He never forgot the sufferings people endured, whether caused by poverty or unemployment or marital strife. And whenever people turned to him for help, he wouldn’t turn them away. Saying ‘no’ to people was something he was never good at.
This could get quite annoying at times. Even unreasonable people were looked after. ‘Selfish me’ worried that these people might expect the same service from other, less selfless priests, but nothing could prevent Denis was attending to people’s needs. So the woman who rang his doorbell at 7.30 a.m. looking for a baptismal cert, dragging him from his bed, was looked after with the same good grace as any one else. (I know about his graciousness from personal experience: when I was confined to home with flu, he was the one who brought me my meals — from his own kitchen, a hundred yeards away, across the churchyard, on a tray.) ‘Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís.’
He was truly a humble priest. Anything that had to be done, he felt he ought to participate in with everyone else. In my first year, an event was held in the school hall. A clean-up followed – so he was the first out with the brushes. It was hard to lean on one’s dignity when Denis was present, because he never did.
Bishop Murphy made him dean of Cork during those years in Dennehy’s Cross. He was the perfect choice, because the honour embarrassed him utterly, so he never used it for his own glory, as others might. And when he became a Freeman of Cork a few years later, it was a moment of joy only because it meant there was a great gathering of friends who had a day of wonderful fun in City Hall — and all at City Council’s expense! In his years in city parishes, when he often found himself in the City Hall pleading with the City Manager for someone or other to be given housing, I bet he never expected such a welcome there.
Part of his self-effacing nature meant that, even when he did something marvellous, like deliver a powerful homily – something at which he excelled – he would be embarrassed at praise, almost denying the words attributed to him. One day this happened when after a funeral of a parishioner, he was quoted as saying of the dead man: ‘It’s all beginning for him now”. When praised for his wonderful summary of what death means for the Christian, he would not accept he was the author of the phrase. So — what better words to mark his passing: ‘it’s all beginning for him now’.
Denis died during the period after Benedict XVI resigned. A friend texted me that maybe he might put in a word with the Lord and ask for a good pope. At Denis’s funeral Mass on Tuesday 12 March, the day the conclave started, a prayer was said for its success. In our hearts, many of us prayed for a humble priest like Fr Denis to be elected. And the next day, Pope Francis appeared…