St. Mary rector celebrates 50 years of ministry in Catholic Church

Published 12:07 am Sunday, June 8, 2014

MARY KATHRYN CARPENTER/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — The Rev. David O'Connor is celebrating 50 years in the ministry this year.

MARY KATHRYN CARPENTER/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — The Rev. David O’Connor is celebrating 50 years in the ministry this year.

The Rev. David O’Connor can summarize the last 50 years of priesthood in two simple, yet complex words.

“It’s been amazing and challenging,” said O’Connor, who is celebrating this month his 50-year anniversary of being ordained. “I have been blessed throughout my life by the many opportunities of bringing peace and hope to people in times of anxiety and struggle.

“I am grateful and humbled by God’s call to me.”

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The decision to enter into seminary and begin preparing for priesthood was one O’Connor thought about for hours on end at time.

“I did a lot of soul searching throughout my time at seminary to really figure out if that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “I would spend a lot of time in retreat asking myself that same question repeatedly.”

But after plenty of soul searching and support from his family and friends, O’Connor finished his studies at St. Patrick’s College in Thurles, Tipperary County, Ireland and was ordained to Catholic priesthood on June 14, 1964.

Because of an influx of Irish residents entering seminary and becoming priests at the time, O’Connor said churches and congregations in Ireland weren’t in as great of need for church leaders.

“There were a lot more people coming out of seminary than what were needed for the local churches, so that meant many people, like myself, had to begin thinking about where did we want to begin serving,” O’Connor said. “When you looked at where you could go in the English speaking world, it was either England, New Zealand or the United States, which was opening up many new churches and actively seeking people to make a commitment to their ministry.”

During O’Connor’s time in seminary, one of his uncles spent time working for the Catholic Dioceses of Jackson. At a family event following O’Connor’s ordainment, he spoke to his uncle about living and working in Mississippi.

“He painted this vision and picture of priesthood in Mississippi that sounded very rewarding,” O’Connor said. “I knew very little about the state at the time, but I looked at it with the notion as if it were mission territory.

“At the time, Ireland was 97 percent Roman Catholic and Mississippi was 3 percent, so therefore it was mission territory.”

O’Connor made the trek to Mississippi in 1964 and began serving as associate pastor in Meridian, where he would stay for three years.

His arrival in Mississippi coincided with the Civil Rights Movement, which helped open O’Connor’s eyes to a new world of racial tension and struggles.

In the aftermath of the deaths of three Civil Rights workers in nearby Neshoba County, O’Connor said he hit the ground running on attempting to implement and teach the gospel to a population of people struggling and scared to accept racial integration.

“There were lots of good people who were simply afraid of that integration,” O’Connor said. “I learned the challenges and struggles for racial equality — which was a huge learning curve from me coming from Ireland where I had never seen anything like that.

“As my first ministry, this was a wonderful learning and maturing experience for me.”

The ministry was also an exciting time for O’Connor as the priest began his transition from pre-Vatican II to post-Vatican II theology.

Pope John XXIII announced the creation of the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, in 1959 in order to reconsider church practices following World War II. The council brought together thousands of bishops, observers and laymen to help build a revised foundation for the church.

O’Connor was trained in a traditional style of theology and understanding of the church that was slowly being phased out of in ministries across the world.

The changes brought on after Vatican II ended in 1965 allowed O’Connor to begin looking at the church in a completely different way.

“It was a very exciting time as new visions were emerging and major changes in the church (occurring), as far as the style of decision making going from an autocratic sense to being more collaborative or participated style of decision making,” O’Connor said. “I look back on that period of time as being a good time, one of constant learning and constant experimenting with models of ministry styles and teachings.”

O’Connor returned to Ireland in 1967 and stayed for three years, working as a seminarian recruiter for Mississippi in Ireland where he would speak to high school and college students with the purpose of recruiting seminarians for ministry in Mississippi.

Nearly 20 years later after stints in Jackson, Oxford and Greenwood, O’Connor was asked to travel to Natchez for a six-year assignment.

O’Connor said his traditional upbringing and studies in seminary were a good match for the traditional ministry that was being practiced in Natchez at the time.

“There was this goal of matching some abilities with some needs, so I think it was looked at as I was good match here,” he said. “Those were very good years.”

O’Connor said he enjoyed working with a church that had such an important part of the community and working with the members of the parish to an assembly of people who would continue serving the church.

“I think we built a core of church leaders, many of whom are still involved in the church today,” O’Connor said. “We also began working with different ministries who were all connected by the same virtue in that we were all on a journey to the same place, but just had different notions of how to get there.

“It was a wonderful challenge of leadership and trying to be an encourager and to inspire people to try and get everyone to look at the bigger picture.”

After six years in Natchez, O’Connor decided to take a leave of absence from Mississippi ministry to return to Limerick, Ireland, to work as a diocesan religious education consultant for 29 high schools and a theology instructor at a local university.

O’Connor said he would have renewed his assignment in Natchez, but felt a strong calling to be home with family.

“My mother still lived in Limerick, and I had been here about 27 years, so I thought it would be nice to go to my home diocese and work there for a couple of years to be closer to her and my siblings and my nieces and nephews,” he said. “My plan was to spend two years there, but I got to do some things I wouldn’t have been able to do pastoring at a larger church and ended up spending seven and a half years there.”

But after a position opened up in Madison in 1999, O’Connor decided it was time to return to Mississippi.

O’Connor worked as director of development and vice principal of St. Joseph Catholic High School in Madison for nearly four years before another assignment arose in a city he knew well.

“The number of Roman Catholic priests was rapidly declining because of (the) age factor, so the bishop called me and asked if I would consider coming back to Natchez,” he said. “I weighed that decision again seriously and thought about it a lot, but ultimately decided it was the right thing to do.”

O’Connor returned to Natchez in 2003 as pastor of St. Mary Basilica and took on the additional responsibility of pastoring for Assumption Catholic Church.

Since his return to Natchez, O’Connor said he’s been able to implement programs and reach achievements within both congregations that have made his time in the city incredibly memorable.

“Natchez has been incredible and very exciting for me because of all the things that have happened with the congregations,” O’Connor said. “It’s been great.”

The construction of the St. Mary Family Life Center, fundraising efforts to build a new building for Cathedral School and the creation of a Spanish Mass for the Hispanic community at Assumption have been the highlights of O’Connor’s second stay in Natchez.

“There’s always more things to be done, but I’m pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish here in Natchez,” O’Connor said. “I’m surrounded by extremely great, talented and well-motivated people, and that’s kind of a big gift in itself.”

Looking back on his 50 years as a priest, O’Connor described his time in the church as rewarding, amazing and challenging.

“It’s very difficult for me to conceptualize that it’s been 50 years,” O’Connor said, smiling. “If I could buy up another 25 years of active ministry, I’d certainly be in the market for that.”

St. Mary Basilica parish will host a jubilee celebration to honor O’Connor’s 50-year anniversary on June 18. A 50th anniversary mass will be at 6 p.m. at the Basilica, followed by a reception at 7:30 p.m. across the street at the family life center.