O'Connell, Denis Joseph
O'CONNELL, DENIS JOSEPH
Bishop; b. Donoughmore, County Cork, Ireland, Jan. 28, 1849; d. Richmond, Va., Jan. 1, 1927. He was the son of Michael and Bridget (O'Connell) O'Connell. The family immigrated to the United States and settled in South Carolina, where two brothers of Michael, Jeremiah J. and Joseph P., were missionaries. When Bishop James Gibbons was looking for candidates to build up the clergy of his new Vicariate of North Carolina, he met young Denis O'Connell. A close friendship developed between Gibbons and O'Connell, one that extended over a long lifetime and major national and international issues of Catholicism in the late nineteenth century. After preliminary studies at St. Charles College, Ellicott City, Md., O'Connell was sent (1871) to the North American College, Rome, for theology courses at the Urban College of the Propagation of the Faith. He was ordained on May 26, 1877 and received a Roman doctorate in theology. After returning to Richmond, where Gibbons had been transferred, O'Connell began priestly work as assistant at St. Peter's cathedral there. He was back in Rome within a few months, a postulator for Gibbons's pallium as newly appointed coadjutor archbishop of Baltimore. For the next five years he worked in the Diocese of Richmond under the direction of Bishop John J. Keane.
In the fall of 1883 Gibbons called O'Connell to Baltimore to assist in the preliminary arrangements for the Third Plenary Council of baltimore, at which he served as one of the four secretaries. After the council he returned to Rome with the American bishops' committee to secure ratification of the conciliar decrees. In 1885 he was appointed rector of the North American College in Rome, and for the next 18 years he served as liaison man and Roman agent for members of the American hierarchy. During his term as rector (1885–95), the student body was enlarged, the physical plant improved, and an honor system established at the college. He also served as a Roman agent for Gibbons, who was elevated to the cardinalate in 1886.
O'Connell, the Roman intermediary, was made a domestic prelate in 1887; he took active part in the Roman aspects of the controversies centered on such questions as the knights of labor, Cahenslyism, The catholic university of america, the coming of an apostolic delegate to the United States, Henry George and the single tax, Archbishop John Ireland's faribault school plan, and americanism. As the lines of difference developed between so-called liberal and conservative members of the American Church of that period, O'Connell became a symbol of the liberal wing's position. He identified himself unqualifiedly with the policies of Gibbons, Ireland, and Keane, and alienated conservative-minded American bishops, who held differing views on the burning issues of the developing Church in the United States. Criticisms of O'Connell's activities, apart from his rectorship, increased to the point that his resignation from the college was requested on the grounds that he did not have the full confidence of the body of American bishops. From 1895 to 1903 O'Connell served as rector of Cardinal Gibbons's titular church of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome.
On Jan. 12, 1903, through the influence of his friends, O'Connell was appointed third rector of The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., which was then badly in need of academic, organizational, promotional, and financial direction. From 1903 to 1910 he worked, with some success, to establish educational improvements at the university. An annual collection was inaugurated that was to be taken up in all the dioceses of the United States for the advancement of the pontifical university in Washington. Student enrollment was increased; several prominent and capable professors were engaged; and academic procedures were formalized according to accepted standards in the academic community. The base of the university's educational program was extended to include undergraduate training as well as graduate studies. But O'Connell found it difficult to adjust to the American system of educational operation through a board of trustees and with input from the faculty. A financial crisis almost destroyed the university in 1904, when the total endowment funds of the institution were endangered by the financial failure of Thomas E. Waggaman, treasurer of the university, who had invested the funds of the university in his enterprises. The university's endowment was reduced by two-thirds of its investment value; confidence in its financial management was severely weakened; and extensive and prolonged revival was slow to take place.
On Dec. 12, 1907, O'Connell was named a titular bishop, a move that advanced his growing desire to be relieved of the rectorship in Washington. After Archbishop Patrick W. Riordan of San Francisco, Calif., petitioned Rome for his old friend O'Connell to become auxiliary bishop, the appointment was made on Dec. 25, 1908. When O'Connell was transferred to the See of Richmond on Jan. 19, 1912, as a suffragan of Cardinal Gibbons, the old discussions began anew that O'Connell would be appointed coadjutor of Baltimore and succeed to the premier see. But he was too old for such a consideration when Cardinal Gibbons died in 1921, and the bishop of Richmond continued directing the activities of the diocese of his youth until Jan. 15, 1926, when he resigned because of failing health.
[c. j. barry]