03Apr 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…


6 Responses

  1. Teresa Mee

    Bernard, what an inspiring tribute to Denis O’Connor.
    Would you consider doing one or all of the following:

    Publish it in the press, frame it with accompanying ‘photo and hang it wherever the clergy and parishioners are wont to meet?

    Why didn’t we know about him before, when we were all in the dumps?

    Teresa Mee

  2. Michael Kelleher

    Bernard thank you for your tribute to Denis O’Connor. While a student in Maynooth I arrived early for the Ordination ceremony at the Cathedral when Denis was Administrator there. He invited me to accompany him as he went around checking that all was ready. He offered a word of calm, of encouragement, of appreciation to all who were involved in the day. I remember thinking, as I travelled home, that the words pastor and good shepherd, which seminary theorised about, become real when you spent time in the company of Denis O’ Connor.

  3. Pat Henning

    Wonderful. Very touching.

    Fair Oaks, California

  4. Association of Catholic Priests

    I would like to add my few words to Bernard’s lovely tribute to Denis O’Connor. I had the privilege of working with him, in two different parishes, Farranree and Dennehy’s Cross, where I gave missions. Denis was such a lovely man. He had an extraordinarily open mind, and, through his constant visitation, he kept in close touch with his people. When you gave a mission in his parish he sat down the church with the people every evening. And he was always supportive and encouraging with his comments afterwards. He was delighted if we were attempting something new and different, because he was aware that things were changing rapidly, and that our methods of preaching the message needed to change also.
    When we Redemptorists were considering setting up a joint lay and clerical youth project in Cork city the superior of our house in Limerick asked me to put him in touch with a priest of the diocese who would give him a good picture of the situation. Without any hesitation I arranged for him to meet Denis. He came back full of enthusiasm for the new project. It was launched in 1989, and Denis was a very significant supporter. It is now nearly twenty five years in existence, and going well.
    I have lovely memories of Denis, and many reasons to be grateful to him at a personal level. May he rest in peace.
    Tony Flannery

  5. Padraig

    “We’ll just have to pray more.” That’s humility, wisdom and a tribute to this good man.

    “It’s all beginning… now.”

    Reminds me on the belief in ‘communion of saints’.

    RIP Fr Denis. Embraced in the Light of Christ. 🙂

    And it is good to hear the good. We all need hope.

  6. Tom Hayes

    Very apt and well written, Bernard. On this “Good Shepherd” weekend, it is good to give thanks for the lifelong dedication of people like Denis. May he inspire us still.