Immigrant Priests Brought Their Ideals

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They first met at seminary in Dublin, two bright country lads with a vocation that offered spiritual sustenance, intellectual challenge and adventure.

Their school, All Hallows College, had been founded more than a century before with the task of training priests to administer to the bedraggled Catholic multitudes then escaping to America, Australia and other outposts of the Irish diaspora.

More than two decades have passed since David O’Connell and Jarlath “Jay” Cunnane first crossed paths en route to a common destiny: Both former farm boys are pastors in densely populated, largely Latino immigrant parishes in Los Angeles. And both devote themselves to the vision of an activist Catholic Church.


“What relevance does our faith have when we see poverty, we see injustice, we see people suffering because of a lack of education, or because their civil rights are being abused?” asks Father O’Connell, pastor of two South Los Angeles parishes: St. Frances X. Cabrini and Ascension. “Christ himself would have been in that struggle for people to have a better life, and to struggle against starvation of children, against disease, against poverty.”

Adds Father Cunnane, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle parish in the Pico-Union district, “There has to be a social dimension to faith, a social dimension to church life. . . . That is what I think we have been trying to foster here.”

Relying on Each Other’s Instincts

The two 48-year-old priests remain fast friends and collaborators. They usually check in before the Sunday homily, gauging each other’s thoughts on community events. Time and experience have taught them to rely on each other’s instincts.

“There’s an awful lot we have to do, and it helps to think it out together,” said O’Connell as the two gathered recently in the Cabrini rectory library, off busy Imperial Highway. “It means an awful lot to me that Jarlath is up there.”

Cunnane initially appears more outgoing than O’Connell, the lively farmer at the crossroads compared to O’Connell’s reserved schoolmaster. But both men exhibit easy laughs and quick wits. Topics of conversations shift effortlessly from Scripture to Irish history, from discussions of Vatican doctrine to their passionate support for amnesty for the masses lacking legal status.

“So many of our people are here; they’re working, but they’re being taken advantage of, living in a kind of shadow world,” says Cunnane on recent day that included a conference of Central American community leaders calling for a renewed push for legalization.


Inside the conference room, O’Connell is bemoaning the fact that the attacks of Sept. 11 set back a push for a new amnesty that seemed to be gathering support in Washington. Both clerics are regulars at rallies and other events dedicated to immigrant rights, worker protections and improved schools. Many of these activities are coordinated by L.A. Metro-I.A.F (Industrial Areas Foundation), a federation of congregations, schools, unions and other groups.

“We need to see how we can put [legalization] back on the front burner,” O’Connell says. “Immigrants are suffering now more because of what happened. Not just because of the political atmosphere, but also because thousands of people are losing their jobs. And that’s affecting families in our neighborhoods very badly.”

It is a sympathy that comes naturally to those raised in rural Ireland a generation ago, when Ireland resembled the Third World more than today’s thriving European nation. So many people had left that, to young O’Connell and Cunnane, the big cities of New York, Boston and London seemed oddly like extensions of their communities, home to countless aunts and uncles whose exploits were discussed at the dinner table.

They recall the parcels with hand-me-downs that would periodically arrive from America--like the one with red wing-tip shoes that came one day to the O’Connell home in County Cork.

O’Connell’s father took a liking to the shoes, which were comfortable on a fine summer day. He died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack at age 53. “They were taking him out of the ambulance, the sheet was over his head, but you could see the red wing-tip shoes,” recalls O’Connell. “I’ll always remember: He wore the red wing-tip shoes the day he died.”

The priests are products of the Irish seminary system that has for years sent missionaries and diocesan priests to far corners of the globe. Ireland, it was once said, was a nation with three major exports: priests, immigrants and Guinness ale. There has long been a pipeline of the cloth to the Los Angeles archdiocese, where dozens of Irish priests are still based even as the number of priests coming out of Ireland has dwindled.


Cunnane is the fourth generation of his family to serve in California. A great-great-uncle started the trend, arriving from County Sligo to become the founding pastor of St. Patrick’s in Watsonville, where a colony of Gaelic speakers had settled. The ancestor’s nephew died as a priest in Alhambra, and it was easy enough for Cunnane to make a choice on leaving All Hallows.

Like so many other rural Irish boys, the pair yearned for the adventure of serving as a priest abroad.

“I really didn’t like the idea of being a priest in Ireland,” said O’Connell, noting that the system there offered less chance for dynamism. “You spend probably 30 years being a curate, an associate pastor--you’re a glorified altar boy, basically. . . . Whereas here, there’s so much to be done, you have a lot of freedom to work hard.”

New Arrivals Change Many Congregations

Cunnane came first, in 1977, followed two years later by O’Connell, whose choice of venue was less calculated. (“Like the guy who jumped through the bar window--it seemed a good idea at the time.”) Massive immigration was then radically transforming Southern California. Their initial postings consisted of mostly non-Latino parishioners, but the demographic push was altering congregations throughout the region.

Today, Cabrini, where O’Connell is based, has a dwindling African American minority. St. Thomas the Apostle is largely Central American. (St. Thomas is being rebuilt after an arson attack did major damage, forcing parishioners to meet in a nearby warehouse.) Worshipers pack the Spanish-language Sunday services of all three parishes.

With shrinking ranks of priests and ever-growing numbers of Catholics, many impoverished, the priests advocate the development of lay leaders. It is a strategy also espoused by adherents of so-called “liberation theology” in Latin America and elsewhere, where lay catechists and others are recruited to help spread the church’s teachings.


“There was too much of the priest doing everything” in the past, says O’Connell, who cites church teachings that the “priesthood of the faithful” should include all who are baptized. “We have concentrated too much on priests of the ordained priesthood, and we haven’t put enough resources into development of the priesthood of the faithful. . . . We’re really trying to think about the church of the future.”

To that end, the church here encourages lay participation. In December, leading up to the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Latin America, hundreds of church-trained leaders are making house visits to discuss pastoral and community issues with residents. At Cabrini on a recent Friday evening, groups meeting on the ample grounds included parents scheduled to make home visits, soccer team organizers, choir leaders and assorted others.

“It is not just getting everybody dressed up to be little priests inside the church,” says O’Connell, who then poses the hard questions that parishioners are asked to ponder. “What does it mean to be a Catholic and work in a factory? . . . What’s it like to be a Catholic and a parent in the schools? Does it bring some responsibility toward education of your children?”

Pope John Paul II has suppressed Marxist variations of “liberation theology” pursued by many leftist priests in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s, arguing that true liberation in the Christian context is to be found in freedom from sin. Cunnane and O’Connell say their social concerns fit squarely into mainstream church teachings. They note that Cardinal Roger Mahony has long been an outspoken advocate for immigrant rights, and that the church has historically supported social justice, from aiding immigrants to the tradition of Catholic health care, education and other hands-on benefits.

“The idea of God as a freedom giver, and Christ as a liberator, are not in any ways extraordinary or exceptional,” notes Cunnane. The parish, he adds, is a kind of “mediating institution” to help people improve their lot. “They can use their talents and abilities to make their lives better in this world. And not just individually, but in a common way.”

O’Connell paraphrases the Scriptures. “The first words of God to Moses were: ‘I’ve seen suffering by people in Israel, and I mean to do something about it.’ That’s what we preach these days.”