Priest has divined secret to longevity

As his 100th birthday nears, religious life seems to agree with the Rev. Robert O'Connell

September 03, 2006|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,sun reporter

A retired Baltimore priest who dedicated his life to serving African-Americans might be earning a new nickname this week: Father Time.

On Tuesday, the Rev. Robert Joseph O'Connell, a Josephite priest, will be the first member of his community to reach 100. To honor him, Cardinal William H. Keeler will celebrate a Mass on Tuesday for O'Connell, who worked as a pastor and chaplain in eight states and three Baltimore parishes.

According to the group's records, O'Connell will be the first centenarian in the history of the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

After 65 years as a priest, O'Connell is modest and witty. He corrected a visitor Friday who congratulated him on reaching the milestone.

"Well, I haven't, yet," O'Connell said.

He served as pastor or assistant pastor at a number of Gulf Coast parishes as well as St. Pius V and St. Peter Claver in the Sandtown-Winchester area and St. Veronica Catholic Church in Cherry Hill.

The Buffalo, N.Y., native initially worked in a Bethlehem Steel office there. He also served four years in the National Guard in New York, O'Connell said during an interview at St. Joseph Manor, a retirement home in Roland Park where he has lived for a decade.

He said he "was always jumping from one thing to another" before a friend led him to a Franciscan priest to pursue a vocation. "From then on, I didn't jump anywhere else."

That priest introduced O'Connell to the Josephite Fathers and Brothers, a society that began evangelizing to freed slaves in the 1890s, and holds to its mission of service to African-American communities. "It was something unusual," O'Connell said.

He began his studies in 1929 at Epiphany Apostolic College, a Josephite seminary in Newburgh, N.Y. Six years later, O'Connell formally became a member of the Josephites at St. Joseph Seminary in Washington. He was ordained a priest at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington in June 1941.

Initially, they were paid $100 a year, although priests received room and board through the community.

"They were different kinds of dollars in those days," said his colleague the Rev. Matthew O'Rourke, a former superior of the society.

Later, O'Connell returned to Epiphany Apostolic College as novice master for 14 years, leading young men pursuing the priesthood.

"Three of my boys are with us now," he said, living at St. Joseph Manor.

While at St. Pius, O'Connell was badly beaten in a robbery a week before Christmas 1984. The robbers took $200 that was intended for the poor.

He remains fit. "I can't understand my health," he said.

I've never been sick that I can think of. I don't take any pills," O'Connell said. He moved his arms to demonstrate his agility and said he lifts 2-pound weights for exercise.

The priest remembers a doctor walking up to him once, "You don't need me," he recalls the doctor saying.

Now, every morning, O'Connell propels himself in his wheelchair for morning prayers and Mass. After breakfast, he returns to his room, where he enjoys watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Other priests visit him and bring him coffee and doughnuts.

His favorite post was as chaplain at South Baltimore General Hospital, O'Connell said, although he had to get over an initial fear of blood.

He was called one night to minister to a Bethlehem Steel employee who had his leg amputated. "I got taught something," O'Connell said. "I could take anything after that."

About 30 of O'Connell's relatives and friends plan to attend the Mass and dinner Tuesday in his honor, though he's outlived his two brothers and sister. But O'Connell had few secrets to share with others who wish to match his longevity.

"With priests, we believe in God," O'Connell said. "I'd say it'd have to be it."

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