Latest update: November 10th, 2014
Cardinal John O’Connor, the late archbishop of New York, was halachically Jewish, according to new research.
O’Connor’s sister, Mary O’Connor Ward, recently discovered through genealogical research that her mother, Dorothy Gumple O’Connor, was born Jewish but converted to Catholicism before she met and married the O’Connors’ father.
Ward told the newspaper Catholic New York that she does not know whether the late cardinal, who died in 2000 at age 80, knew that his mother had been Jewish. Ward said her mother never spoke about her Jewish roots but that when she was growing up, she “surmised” that her mother was a convert.
According to halacha, or Jewish law, anyone with a Jewish mother is considered Jewish.
O’Connor had close ties with New York’s Jewish community, often describing Jews as Catholics’ “elder brothers”; marched in protests to free Soviet Jews; visited the site of the Dachau concentration camp; and joined Jews in commemorating the Holocaust.
A native of Philadelphia, O’Connor became an auxiliary bishop in 1979 and bishop of Scranton, Pa., in 1983. In 1984, Pope John Paul II named him archbishop of New York, a position he held until his death, and O’Connor was made a cardinal in 1985.
Ward said her brother would have been proud of his Jewish roots. She credited her daughter, Eileen Ward Christian, for pushing her to conduct the research that led to the Jewish discovery.
Catholic New York’s Claudia McDonnell noted two of many incidents in the cardinal’s life that pointed to his deeply felt connection with the Jewish people:
On May 3, 1987, he watched thousands march down Fifth Avenue protesting the oppression of Soviet Jews. Later he joined the protesters at a rally near the United Nations and told them, “As I stood on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral this morning and watched you stream by, I could only be proud of those who streamed out of Egypt several thousand years ago, winning freedom for themselves and for all of us. They are your ancestors, and they are mine.”
He added, “I am proud to be this day, with you, a Jew.”
At a synagogue service in 1988 commemorating the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when Nazis destroyed synagogues and Jewish homes and stores in Germany and Austria, the cardinal told the congregation that he had placed a candle in the window of his residence on Madison Avenue.
“That candle says, to those who would accuse, ‘Paint your swastika on the walls of my house, because herein lives a spiritual Semite,’ ” he said.
Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V., superior general of the Sisters of Life, a women’s religious congregation founded by O’Connor, said the cardinal’s visit to Dachau 1975 had an immense influence on him.
“The men and women who died at Dachau shaped his adult life,” agreed Sister Maris Stella Karalekas of the Sisters of Life, who has spent years researching O’Connor’s life. “They could have been his relatives. He was so deeply connected to the Jewish people.”
– Jewish Press staff, JTA, Catholic New YorkJewish Press Staff
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