Friar Celebrates Final Masses at Manhattan Hospital

Rebecca Doel In the Headlines

NEW YORK — James O’Connell, OFM, celebrated what he described as a “funeral” Mass for roughly 1,500 laid off employees at the chapel of St. Vincent’s Hospital here on April 30.

The noon service was the first — and saddest, according to James — of five farewell Masses for the internationally-renowned Greenwich Village hospital, which officially shut its doors at 8 a.m. that morning.

Rewarding Chaplaincy
James, who served as a member of the hospital’s pastoral care department since moving to New York in 1996, stressed in his homily the importance of taking the experiences of kindness, generosity and care for the poor on to the new work settings.

Most of the hospital’s 3,500 employees, he said, had worked at St. Vincent’s for at least 25 years.

“The Sisters of Charity, who founded the hospital, had a preferential option for the poor across the board,” James said, adding that this was reflected in their willingness to hire immigrants, in their care for the homeless, and especially the care the sisters provided to AIDS victims during the 1980s and ‘90s.

“These have been the happiest 14 years of my life as a Franciscan friar,” James said. “My coworkers were the friendliest, most genuine people I have met. The staff worked like a beautiful orchestra — everyone playing their part for the well-being of each patient.”

He described the staff members — men and women of faith, along with the sisters, as “steadfast to the hospital’s mission to the end,” saying St. Vincent’s was a genuinely Catholic institution — “Christ-centered and valuing the sacredness and dignity of life from the moment of conception to natural death.”

Future of St. Vincent’s
James said he was surprised about the collapse of the hospital and noted, “I think we all thought St. Vincent’s would be rescued by Mount Sinai (Medical Center), but we knew immediately that it was over when Mt. Sinai declined to buy.”

He said the impact of the closure remains to be seen. “There is now no acute care hospital on the Lower West Side of Manhattan.”

vin-rDedicated to Patients
James, who joined the Province’s formation program as a student at Siena College, received his master’s degree in counseling from New York University and served as the chaplain of Massachusetts General Hospital before moving to St. Francis Friary in Manhattan. He also ministers at St. Francis of Assisi Church one day a week.

Though James is uncertain where he will serve next, it will likely be another position in the health care field. However, he will begin a sabbatical in August, traveling to Belgium to study at the Catholic University in Leuven.

Several other Holy Name Province friars have been affiliated with St. Vincent’s over the years. Daniel Sulmasy, OFM, held the Sisters of Charity Chair in Ethics, John J. Conley Department of Ethics at St. Vincent’s. Christopher Keenan, OFM, has served as chaplain of the hospital for the past year and a half, and Gregory Gebbia, OFM, helped on weekends for several months, James said.

A photo of James celebrating the farewell Mass appeared in the May 1 issue of The New York Times with an article titled “Staff Says Goodbye to St. Vincent’s Hospital.”

Shown in the photo are Christopher, James and Jerome Massimino, OFM, guardian of St. Francis Friary, at the April 30 Mass.

Rebecca Doel is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.