Thousands attend funeral Mass for beloved Los Angeles Bishop David O’Connell

LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Catholics, multi-faith clergy and elected leaders from across Southern California filled the pews of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles on Friday for the funeral Mass of Auxiliary Bishop David Gerard O’Connell, a beloved priest regarded as a “peacekeeper,” a “man of the people” and a “good friend to Los Angeles.”

It was the third day of memorial services in remembrance of O’Connell, 69, a native of Ireland, who was found shot to death Feb. 18 in his Hacienda Heights home. Parishioners on Thursday formed lines at the cathedral during a daylong public viewing for the bishop before a vigil Mass was held in his honor.

On Friday, the prayer of St. Patrick emanated as bishops and cardinals processed into the cathedral. Cardinal Robert McElroy was among the bishops in attendance. City and state leaders including Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore and California Senator Maria Elena Durazo sat in the front pews alongside O’Connell’s family.

In his homily, Monsignor Jarlath Cunnane spoke of his 50 years of friendship with O’Connell, whom he described as a friend of Jesus and of the poor. Cunnane recalled how O’Connell was faithful to him while he was ill in the hospital. He also remembered their weekly dinners for which O’Connell would often arrive early and walk along the parking lot, with his dog’s leash in one hand and a rosary in the other.

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“I’d look at the two of them, him and the dog so at peace, sometimes I fancied the dog had learned the rosary,” Cunnane joked. 

He said that he and O’Connell were “caminantes juntos,” or “wayfarers together.”

“He wasn’t just my good friend. Friendship was something he was good at. He was friends with young and old, far and wide, with people in Peru, in South Africa, in Ireland. He was friends up and down the social scale, at ease in the corridors of power and with the powerless, at ease with the movers and the shakers, and also with the moved and the shaken,” Cunnane said.

“You’re blessed if you have a soul friend, and I was blessed to have had David,” he said.

Parishioners were in tears as Cunnane ended his homily with an adaptation of the speech of Tom Joad from John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”

“Wherever a stranger, immigrant is to be welcomed, I’ll be there … wherever there’s a last soul given God’s love, I’ll be there,” said Cunnane.

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The bishop’s nephew, David O’Connell, spoke during the Mass about “Uncle Dave,” remembering him as a jokester who always visited friends and neighbors when he was in Ireland. “He never had a problem making time for people,” he said.

He said the bishop always took interest in his family’s milestones and that “all he wanted to do was make things easier for everyone else.”

“He never ended a phone call without telling me how proud he was of me, and I hope that he knows that we are all so proud of him,” the bishop’s nephew said.

“We now all have the opportunity to pick up where he left off and to carry the example that he set,” he added. “Help those that you can help … be considerate and give others the benefit of the doubt.” 

Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez addressed parishioners and O’Connell’s family, saying that even though the bishop will be missed “in an extraordinary way in our lives and in the life of the church … we know that he’s in heaven.”

“From there, he’s going to continue to intercede for us as he has done his whole life,” Gómez said. 

Priests at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Friday after the funeral Mass. Photo by Alejandra Molina

O’Connel had been episcopal vicar for the archdiocese’s San Gabriel Pastoral Region since 2015, when Pope Francis named him an auxiliary, according to Angelus News, the L.A. Archdiocese’s news outlet. He had worked in the L.A. diocese for 45 years.

Born in County Cork, Ireland, in 1953, O’Connell studied for the priesthood at All Hallows College in Dublin and was ordained to serve in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1979, according to Angelus News.

After ordination, O’Connell worked in South Central L.A. parishes and focused on gang intervention. He worked to mediate peace between residents and law enforcement following the violent 1992 uprising after a jury acquitted four white L.A. police officers in the beating of Rodney King.

Maria Reyna outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Friday. Photo by Alejandra Molina

Maria Reyna outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Friday. Photo by Alejandra Molina

Maria Reyna attended the Mass on Friday and recalled meeting O’Connell while he visited her parish in South Central L.A. She remembers his kindness and his smile. “Everybody knows him in the community and would speak fondly of him,” she said.

Although Reyna only met O’Connell that one time, she said he left a lasting impression. She was saddened to see O’Connell die violently, given the work he did in uniting others.

“It was important for me to be here to bid him farewell from this world,” she said. 

Sergio Lopez, with Catholic Relief Services, outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown L.A. Photo by Alejandra Molina

Sergio Lopez, with Catholic Relief Services, outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown L.A. Photo by Alejandra Molina

Sergio Lopez, with Catholic Relief Services, attended the Mass and said he worked with O’Connell through an inter-diocesan immigration task force. He recalled visiting the U.S.-Mexico border in 2017 with O’Connell and other leaders just as the travel ban to Muslim-majority countries had been announced. 

Being with O’Connell and others working on immigration issues during that time, he said, “really inspired me at a moment that was very difficult for me.”

“I knew from one of the very first moments that I met him that there was something really special about him,” Lopez said.

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