O'Connell, William Henry
O'CONNELL, WILLIAM HENRY
Cardinal and second archbishop of Boston; b. Lowell, Mass., Dec. 8, 1859; d. Boston, Mass., April 22, 1944. He was the youngest of 11 children of John and Brigid O'Connell, natives of County Cavan, Ireland. His father died when he was five but family sacrifices enabled him to attend Lowell public schools and then to enter St. Charles College, Ellicott City, Maryland, to study for the priesthood. However, in 1879 he left the seminary and entered Boston College, from which he graduated in 1881 with first honors in philosophy and physics. He reapplied for the priesthood and was sent by Abp. John J. Williams to the North American College in Rome. Illness terminated O'Connell's studies at Rome before he could obtain a doctorate. He was ordained June 7, 1884, returned to the U.S. in December, and did pastoral work for the next ten years, first at St. Joseph's in Medford, then at St. Joseph's in Boston's West End.
Early Career. Late in 1895, when a conflict of opinion in the U.S. hierarchy led to the resignation of the rectors of the North American College in Rome and the Catholic University of America, Cardinal James Gibbons named O'Connell rector of the north american college. During the next six years, O'Connell doubled the enrollment of the North American College, rehabilitated its finances, and purchased the Villa Santa Caterina at Castel Gandolfo for summer sessions. He was made a domestic prelate in 1897. His relations with Pope Leo XIII, Papal Secretary of State Cardinal Rampolla, and the future Cardinal Merry del Val were cordial. He also formed friendships in Roman society and diplomatic circles that resulted in the bequest to the North American College of the library of the bibliophile William Heyward, and in the decoration of the college refectory at the expense of the American theater magnate, Benjamin F. Keith. In 1918 O'Connell received from the Keith estate a personal bequest totalling almost $2.5 million. He devoted the entire sum to charities for various Catholic institutions, rendering the final account of these disbursements in 1936.
On May 19, 1901, in the Corsini Chapel of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, O'Connell was consecrated third bishop of Portland, Maine, by Cardinal Satolli. Taking possession of his see, which had been vacant for nearly a year, he visited every parish in the state. He redecorated the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, introduced a forerunner of the Catholic Youth Organization, and fostered retreats for the clergy. In 1903 he declined the Holy See's appointment to the Archdiocese of Manila in the Philippine Islands, which had recently been acquired by the U.S. Aware of the untrue reports that he had supported the Spanish cause against the U.S. in 1898, O'Connell frankly informed Rome that such gossip would impede his work in the Philippines and recommended that another choice be made.
After the Russo-Japanese War, O'Connell was named special papal envoy to Emperor Mutsuhito on Aug. 31, 1905. He had a personal audience with the emperor and empress and was decorated with the Grand Cordon of the Sacred Treasure. He made a thorough survey of the mission field in Japan, reporting to Pius X in Rome in January 1906. His recommendations, all adopted, included the introduction of many religious orders into Japan, the fostering of a native clergy, and the founding of a Catholic university at Tokyo, to be staffed by Jesuits.
Assignment to Boston. On Feb. 21, 1906, Pius X, disregarding the recommendations from the bishops of New England, named O'Connell titular bishop of Constantia, and coadjutor with right of succession to the aged Archbishop Williams of Boston. The news was not favorably received in Boston but O'Connell remained unperturbed. He concluded his affairs in Portland and went to Boston to be installed formally on April 3, 1906. At the death of Williams on Aug. 30, 1907, the 47-year-old O'Connell took up the reins that he would hold firmly for the next 37 years.
A born leader, O'Connell once said: "I have never hesitated to speak as plainly as possible … whenever direction was needed." He began at once to reorganize the large archdiocese in which he found many institutions debt ridden and run down. In 1908, when the apostolic constitution of Pius X, Sapienti consilio, removed the Church in the U.S. from mission supervision to full national status like that of the Church in older European countries, O'Connell was a leader in establishing diocesan administrative offices. His zeal for the missions, both foreign and home, was shown in his support of the Catholic Missionary Congress held at Chicago in 1908 and at Boston in 1913. He encouraged two Boston priests in the founding of new missionary congregations. James Anthony walsh was released from the Boston archdiocese to become a cofounder of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society; the Vincentian Thomas judge, born in Boston, was aided in his work for home missions in founding the missionary servants of the most holy trinity, a community of sisters, the missionary servants of the most blessed trinity, and the Missionary Cenacle Apostolate. O'Connell also pioneered in supporting (1917) the open-air preaching of the Jewish convert and lay apostle to the man in the street, David goldstein.
O'Connell was created the first native cardinal of Boston on Nov. 26, 1911. A group of non-Catholics in Boston presented him with a purse of $25,000, which he used for improving his titular Church of San Clemente in Rome. In the Boston archdiocese he placed institutions on a sound financial basis, encouraged early and frequent Communion, and introduced retreats for the laity, bringing the Passionists, the Religious of the Cenacle, and the Franciscans to Boston to conduct retreat houses.
Other Contributions. On the national scene, O'Connell's diocese was outstanding in both World Wars in efforts for servicemen. Patriotism was a frequent theme in his sermons. When President Wilson first proposed his Fourteen Points, the Cardinal spoke at Madison Square Garden (Dec. 10, 1918), eloquently urging selfdetermination for Ireland as well as for other peoples. In 1924, he spoke out publicly against the proposed child labor amendment to the Constitution as infringing on the rights of parents and of the states. He also spoke against birth control and preached against graft in politics. O'Connell helped to convert the National Catholic War Council of World War I into the National Catholic Welfare Conference. He was prominent in bringing about the change that today enables cardinals from any part of the globe to participate in the election of a new pope. In 1914, and again in 1922, the old rule of convening the conclave ten days after the death of a pope had frustrated O'Connell's journeys across the Atlantic. He protested so strongly that Pius XI personally promised to extend the time to 18 days. Thus, in 1939, O'Connell was able to reach Rome in time for the election of Pius XII.
Despite his preoccupation with the administration of mundane matters, the cardinal was a man of prayer and a patron of letters. An amateur organist, he composed the music for The Holy Cross Hymnal (Boston 1915). His music for the Latin motet Juravit Dominus, written in 1882, was sung for many years at first Masses of priests at the North American College in Rome and in the Boston archdiocese. The Universalist Church of the Redemption in Boston, with its fine organ, was bought by the cardinal and was dedicated as St. Clement's Church on Dec. 8,1935. He served from 1932 to 1936 as a trustee of the Boston Public Library. To encourage Lenten devotions he translated from the Italian The Passion of Our Lord by Cardinal Gaetano De Lai (Boston 1923). O'Connell's particular devotion throughout his life was to our Lady of Perpetual Help.
In 1937 he was awarded an honorary degree by Harvard University, the first native Catholic prelate to be so recognized. During his administration parishes in the archdiocese increased from 194 to 322, and clergy from 600 to more than 1,500. Admissions to St. John's Seminary tripled; a score of new religious congregations were introduced into the area; parochial elementary schools were doubled and high schools tripled—taught by a total of more than 3,000 priests, brothers, and sisters. Three colleges for women were founded under his auspices and he aided the establishment of Boston College on its Chestnut Hill campus. In 1908 he purchased as a diocesan organ, the weekly newspaper, the Pilot; in 1934 he laid the cornerstone of a diocesan center, a six-story building with presses and offices for the Pilot, offices for diocesan bureaus, and a meditation chapel. An archdiocesan residence, the Crehan Library, and the chancery were built; he also enlarged St. John's Seminary, staffing it with diocesan priest-scholars. Active and vigorous in the service of the Church to the last week of his life, O'Connell, at his death, was buried in the mausoleum he had built on the seminary grounds.
Bibliography: w. h. o'connell, Reminiscences of Twenty-Five Years (Boston 1926); Recollections of Seventy Years (Boston 1934). r. h. lord et al., History of the Archdiocese of Boston … 1604 to 1943, 3 v. (New York 1944). d. g. wayman, Cardinal O'Connell of Boston (New York 1955).
[d. g. wayman]