NEW YORK (RNS) It’s hard to think of a Catholic churchman who was more outspoken in defense of Jews and Judaism than Cardinal John O’Connor, the charismatic New York archbishop who died in 2000.
Now research into O’Connor’s family tree has found that the cardinal’s affinity for Judaism apparently went deeper than even he knew: His mother, it turns out, was born Jewish and converted before she married O’Connor’s father. Yet the cardinal likely believed his mother was originally Lutheran.
“I think he would have been very proud of it,” his sister, Mary O’Connor Ward, said of the discovery in an interview published in the April 30 edition of Catholic New York.
Ward told the archdiocesan newspaper that she started genealogical research on the O’Connor clan at the urging of one of her daughters.
As she began her quest, Ward found that her maternal grandparents, Tina and Gustav Gumple, had been buried in a Jewish cemetery in Bridgeport, Conn. When they died, in the 1800s, non-Jews could not have been buried in a Jewish burial site, Ward said.
Then she went to the archives of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia — where the five O’Connor children were raised in a row house — and found that their mother, Dorothy Gumple O’Connor, converted to Catholicism when she was 19, more than a year before she met and married their father, Thomas O’Connor.
“What brought it about, I’ll never know,” Ward told CNY. “None of us will ever know why she became a Catholic.”
Their mother was devout in her practice, and died while sitting in a chair reciting the rosary.
Ward said she doesn’t think her brother knew of the family’s Jewish roots, and the cardinal reportedly said he thought his mother was originally Lutheran because her family came from Germany.
Cardinal O’Connor certainly seemed like the quintessentially Irish-American churchman, with a love for people, a gift for telling stories, and a knack for mixing it up in politics. But his passion for Judaism was a hallmark of his tenure, as well.
Speaking metaphorically, O’Connor told a 1987 rally protesting the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union: “I am proud to be this day, with you, a Jew.” He also called himself a “spiritual Semite” and dared anyone who would attack Jews to paint a swastika on the rectory where he lived.
He was a strong supporter of Jewish causes and played a key role in the Vatican’s recognition of the State of Israel in 1993.
O’Connor also wrote a book, “His Eminence and Hizzoner,” with that quintessentially New York Jew, Ed Koch, his friend and sparring partner, who was mayor during part of the time that O’Connor was archbishop.
Indeed, Koch — who died last year — was such a fixture in the front pew at Midnight Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral every Christmas that O’Connor joked that he wouldn’t start the service until the former mayor was seated.
KRE/AMB END GIBSON