This is the fifth in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their anniversaries of profession. The fourth featured Charles O’Connor, OFM. The Province’s 2018 silver and golden jubilarians will be honored on June 21 at a special Mass celebrated in New York City.
TRIANGLE, Va. – When he was asked to be the chaplain of the Allegany Volunteer Fire Department in Western New York while serving in his first ministerial assignment as coordinator of campus ministry at St. Bonaventure University in 1974, John O’Connor, OFM, felt compelled to be more than just a spectator at fire scenes. He wanted to be part of the action.
“If I was going to be a fire department chaplain, I had to fully experience what firefighters went through,” said John, who – after undergoing rigorous training requirements – went on to become a certified New York State volunteer firefighter and later rose through the ranks as the department’s assistant chief.
His first call was a restaurant fire in sub-freezing temperatures – and as he and a 28-year veteran volunteer firefighter were rushing toward the building, a second-floor explosion showered them with flaming debris. The senior firefighter told John it was the closest he had ever come to death. Since then, John has responded to numerous dramatic, and sometimes tragic, emergency calls, including a Christmas Day fire that claimed the lives of six people, including four children.
“To minister to firefighters, you have to live their emotions,” he said.
To those who have come to know John, his impetus for joining the fire department wasn’t surprising. This is how he has approached his entire ministerial life – by jumping fully into the trenches wherever he has been needed and whatever he has been called to do. The result has been a palette of deeply fulfilling and diverse ministries – from formation to fundraising – spanning five decades. John is celebrating 50 years since his first profession as a Franciscan friar.
“These greatly varied ministries are what I have found exciting about being a friar,” John said during a phone interview from his office at St. Francis of Assisi, the parish in Triangle where he has been serving as pastor since August 2017.
But the most important aspect of his ministry is personified in the story he tells of a painting of a boat docked in a harbor, and the cancer-stricken, dying woman who painted it for him as a gift for helping to bring her back to the Church during the last few weeks of her life.
“The most important work that I do as a friar – the most important work of every friar – is being a voice of our loving God, and helping people find Christ, reconciliation, the goodness in themselves, and their way back to the Church,” John said. “The idyllic scene in the painting, and the role I played in that woman’s journey, reminds me that true greatness comes not from accomplishing heroic or prestigious feats, but by doing the work of God.”
Minor Seminary, Major Skills
John contemplated religious life at an early age. That it would be as a Franciscan friar didn’t come until later in the discernment process. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., he was raised in an Irish-Catholic family in the Queens neighborhood of Glendale. One of five children of John and Mary O’Connor, an RCA Communications technician and homemaker, respectively, John served as an altar boy at St. Pancras Parish.
In the summer months, he and his family would visit a relative’s Upstate New York farm near St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary, the Franciscans’ minor seminary in Callicoon. That’s where he met the Province’s vocation director.
The Franciscans sounded like as good a choice as any, so John decided to attend the Callicoon seminary immediately after graduating from St. Pancras grammar school in 1961.
He was received into the Franciscan Order on July 14, 1967, at St. Raphael’s Novitiate in Lafayette, N.J., where he also made his first profession one year later. John made his solemn profession on June 19, 1971, at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City, and was ordained on Sept. 22, 1973, at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Md.
He received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1970 from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a master’s degree in theology in 1975 from Washington Theological Union (then called Washington Theological Coalition), also in the nation’s capital. In tribute to his wide accomplishments in ministry, John also received an honorary doctorate in humane letters from St. Bonaventure University in 2015.
John wore many ministerial caps (besides his fire hat) in his first assignment at St. Bonaventure, where he served from 1974 to 1982. As director of campus ministry, he helped young adults put their faith into action by developing a comprehensive community outreach program that started with eight students and swelled to more than 450 participants in multiple initiatives that addressed the needs of the poor and disadvantaged in towns and cities near the university.
He also helped establish a camp in Cattaraugus County for children with emotional issues, and helped facilitate state funding for programs for young people. Years later, he founded St. Francis House, an outreach program in northern Virginia (now in its 26th year) that provides a food bank, emergency financial assistance, computer training programs, and supervised family programs.
“I consider these outreach programs one of my most significant achievements as a friar because helping the poor, disadvantaged and marginalized defines who we are as Franciscans,” John said, who, while at St. Bonaventure University, also served as an adjunct theology professor (he wrote the curriculum for a course on the sacraments) and was the founder of a university parish for area residents, faculty members and students.
John believes that the Province’s most unique aspect is its diverse ministries and commitment to higher education and campus ministry.
“There are not many religious orders that have the opportunity that we do at St. Bonaventure and Siena College to make an impact on the lives of thousands of men and women who become productive citizens and vastly contribute to society,” John said.
Youngest Director of Formation
In 1982, John, who was 34 years old at the time, became the youngest friar ever to serve as guardian and director of formation at Holy Name College, then located in Washington, D.C. As if his responsibilities to 55 friars in formation and a large group of professed friars residing at HNC weren’t enough, the Provincial leadership presented John with another challenge.
“We had outgrown the space at Holy Name College. The building was old and financially draining to operate,” explained John, who also served as a part-time chaplain at nearby Trinity College, coordinating retreats and other liturgical programs for the students.
John was charged with exploring all options – rehabilitation of the existing building, new construction versus leasing space, and potential locations. Despite having no background in construction or finance, John executed a cost analysis and did some research – but it was a meeting with Archbishop James Hickey of Washington that provided the ultimate solution.
In a 15-page report, John recommended the most efficient way to relocate Holy Name College would be for the Province to take operational control of the diocesan parish of St. Camillus in nearby Silver Spring, and build the new house of studies on the parish grounds.
John managed all aspects of the $3.8 million project, meeting with architects, engineers and contractors during the planning stage – and, with hardhat in tow, made his presence felt on site from the moment ground was broken in 1984 through completion the following year. In between, he negotiated the sale of the old Holy Name College building to Howard University before opening the new facility.
He soon became the Province’s de facto expert on real estate and finance, which led to his appointment as HNP director of properties in 1990 and later, as co-director and director of finance from May 1996 to May 2005, the same period during which he served on the Provincial Council. As a Council member, he assessed the Province’s five buildings on West 31st and West 32nd streets in Manhattan.
“The buildings were aging. The friary was in disrepair. The friars’ rooms were small and very cramped,” said John, who met with experts to determine the feasibility of razing the existing buildings and replacing them with a single high-rise.
After more than four years of meetings with architects, engineers, developers, contractors, financial institutions and zoning experts, John found a partner in the real estate industry, secured funding for this $300 million project, and ultimately worked closely with the developers to construct the present 63-story skyscraper on 31st Street that houses the Provincial Office, friars’ residences, the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge, and more than 400 apartments, of which 20 percent are low income and affordable units.
The success of that project didn’t go unnoticed. Through the years, other religious orders and not-for-profit organizations have asked John to consult on their property development projects.
John has always found pastoral ministry invigorating, so it was a perfect fit when he was appointed in 1991 as pastor of St. Francis in Triangle, the first of his two assignments at the Virginia parish. One of his first acts as pastor was addressing a pressing challenge– transforming the physical plant, which included a grammar school, in a way that would meet the needs of the area’s rapid population growth of Catholic families. John managed a capital project that included construction of a new parish center and offices, and a major expansion of classroom, gymnasium and cafeteria space.
As it has throughout his life, his fire department ministry followed him to Triangle, where he served as the only chaplain of the Prince William County Department of Fire & Rescue from 1991 to 2001. Since his return to Triangle in 2014, he has served as lead chaplain with the Prince William County Virginia Department of Fire Rescue with the rank of battalion chief, but he no longer rushes into burning buildings.
“I leave that to the younger generation of firefighters,” said John, who during his first assignment at the Triangle parish was appointed director of the Province’s benevolence committee, which administers funds to advocacy and social justice programs.
Although his service as pastor at St. Francis concluded in mid-June 2003, he continued to reside at the friary and performed ministerial duties, while also serving as a weekend associate at St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax, Va. Much of his attention between 2003 and 2005 went to assessing and implementing repair and renovation projects at friaries and parishes throughout the Province.
Then came a ministry-altering event in June 2005: John was elected as Provincial Minister, a position that he admittedly never expected to be part of his life as a friar. “Frankly, I was a little overwhelmed, taking on enormous responsibility – not least of all making decisions that impacted the lives of more than 400 friars,” he said.
But a couple of days later, he noticed a quote on the mud flap of a tractor-trailer passing him on a highway. It read: “If God chooses you, he will show you the way.”
Those reassuring words – and “tremendous support” from Provincial Councilors and staff, and from then-Provincial Vicar Dominic Monti, OFM, a trusted confidant with whom he collaborated on decisions and difficult issues, helped him during his nine-year tenure as Provincial Minister.
During this tenure, which included re-election to a second term in 2011, John fulfilled other roles and responsibilities, such as administrative council member of HNP’s jubilee fund for formation and evangelization, acting Definitor General to the General Minister, and president of the OFM English-speaking Conference – which, among other things, involved presiding over two annual meetings of provincials from Canada, England, Australia, Ireland and other regions.
After his term ended in 2014, at a time in his life when friars typically take a break from the rigors of ministry, John put his sabbatical on hold and instead answered the call from the Franciscan Minister General in Rome – who asked him to create a development and fundraising office in the United States for the Order.
To be in close proximity to Washington, D.C., John returned to a familiar home – St. Francis in Triangle, where he would also serve as guardian and help with ministerial services on weekends. But in May 2016, another unexpected turn of events occurred. John was appointed parochial administrator of the Triangle parish – and 15 months later, to his current position and an encore assignment as pastor.
“The best part of being back was reconnecting with parishioners,” he said.
John recalled several friars who had a lasting impact on his formation and ministries, among them Brennan Connolly, OFM, one of his teachers and his ice hockey coach at St. Joseph; Joseph Doino, OFM, director of students at Holy Name College in Washington, and Peter Sheridan, OFM, a former novice master who later lived at Holy Name College when John was guardian.
“Peter was a great gift in my years as guardian. I always tapped into his wisdom and experience,” he said.
John enjoys hiking in the countryside, an activity he seldom gets to do because of his parish commitments and other responsibilities. The sabbatical that he put on hold four years ago doesn’t look as though it will be on his calendar any time soon!
— Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y.
- “General Minister Appoints John O’Connor to Position in Order” – Sept. 19, 2014, HNP Today
- “This Franciscan Fought Fires, Landed on an Aircraft Carrier and Built a Skyscraper” – Dec. 7, 2016, Arlington Catholic Herald
- “Friars Celebrate SBU President” – June 29, 2016, HNP Today