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‘Gripped by grace’: Thousands gather for Bishop O’Connell’s funeral Mass

Archbishop Jose H. Gomez places Christian symbols on the coffin
Archbishop José H. Gómez places the Book of Gospels and a cross on the coffin of Bishop David G. O’Connell, before leading the funeral procession at Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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It was standing-room only in the cavernous Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, where the funeral Mass for Bishop David G. O’Connell was held Friday morning. And it seemed every one of the 3,000 mourners in attendance had a personal relationship with the cleric most knew as their beloved “Bishop Dave.”

Sister Margarita Rico, a member of the Order of the Servants of Mary in Los Angeles who was dressed in a crisp white habit, first met O’Connell when she was caring for the bishop’s longtime friend, Father Jarlath “Jay” Cunnane, during a serious illness. She remembers O’Connell coming to visit his friend every day.

“For him, it was sacred to attend to the sick,” she said.

The bishop's casket   arrives at Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels
The casket of Bishop David G. O’Connell arrives at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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Sitting next to her was Jennifer Ayon, who was wearing black and holding a Louis Vuitton purse. She had met O’Connell after her father Juan Ayon became a deacon of the church in June. O’Connell hosted a dinner for Juan and his wife Juanita in his home to welcome them. “He was such a gracious, authentic person,” said Ayon. “He would sit down and talk to you like he knew you.”

Sister Mariae Herrera and Sister Fatema Vega, members of the Trinitarians of Mary based in West Covina who wear a pale blue habit, said that to them, O’Connell was a true father who visited their monastery every other week.

Funeral Mass is held for Auxiliary Bishop David G. O’Connell in downtown L.A. He was found slain in his home Feb. 18.

March 2, 2023

“He was part of our family,” Herrera said. “We called him Papa.”

O’Connell was shot to death in his Hacienda Heights home Feb. 18. A handyman whose wife worked as the bishop’s housekeeper has been charged with one count of murder, but the motive for the killing remains unclear.

A woman holds up a button with a picture of Auxiliary Bishop David G. O'Connell
A woman holds up a button with a picture of Auxiliary Bishop David G. O’Connell.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Originally from Ireland, O’Connell worked as a priest and then a bishop in L.A. County for 43 years, primarily in South Los Angeles. In addition to serving his congregations, the white-haired priest who spoke fluent Spanish with an Irish accent was also a strong social-justice advocate. He supported unaccompanied minors and DACA students through the Southern California Immigration Task Force, which he founded and chaired, organized against gun violence and environmental racism, and helped South L.A. rebuild after the 1992 riots.

Pope Francis named him an auxiliary bishop in 2015. The funeral was one of four Masses and memorials planned by the archdiocese to honor the beloved bishop, who was 69 when he died.

L.A. Archbishop José H. Gómez presided over the two-hour Mass, with Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles; Cardinal Robert McElroy of the San Diego Archdiocese; and Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

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The service began with a long, formal processional of full-Catholic pomp and circumstance that included the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of Peter Claver, the Order of Malta, and the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. They were followed by the deacons dressed in white accompanied by their wives, then novice priests and regular priests in their sand-colored robes, and finally the bishops in their bright gleaming hats who each stopped to kiss the altar at the center of the church.

Visitors watch as Archbishop José H. Gómez leads the funeral procession
Visitors watch as Archbishop José H. Gómez leads the funeral procession ahead of the casket.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Archbishop José H. Gómez left, leads the recessional at the conclusion of the funeral mass
Archbishop José H. Gómez left, leads the recessional at the conclusion of the funeral mass of Bishop David O’Connell at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, in downtown Los Angeles on Friday.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

A choir sang an entrance hymn called “The Deer’s Cry” by Irish composer Shuan Davey.

I arise today, through God’s strength to pilot me.
God’s eyes to look before me, God’s wisdom to pilot me
God’s way to lie before me, God’s shield to protect me

To open the Mass, Gómez read from a telegram he had received from the Vatican expressing Pope Francis’ sorrow over O’Connell’s untimely death.

The pope noted that O’Connell’s ministry had been “marked especially by his profound concern for the poor, immigrants and those in need, his efforts to uphold the sanctity and dignity of God’s gift of life and his zeal for fostering solidarity, cooperation and peace within the local community.”

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The homily was given by Cunnane, who also hails from Ireland. He befriended O’Connell when the two attended seminary together in 1971, and they met for dinner together most Thursday nights. Cunnane said that he and O’Connell had been walking the road together for a long time.

“I can’t imagine walking that road without David at my side,” he said. “I’m sure I would have lost my way.”

Friendship was something O’Connell was especially good at, Cunnane said. “Young and old, far and wide, in Peru, South Africa and up and down the social scale,” he said. “He was at ease with the movers and the shakers, and the moved and the shaken.”

He described his friend as being “gripped by grace,” and as a “practical mystic.”

“Some of us have what we call a life of prayer,” Cunnane said. “For Dave, life was prayer.”

A nun in a white habit prays while kneeling in a church.
Margarita Rico, a nun with the Servants of Mary, attends the funeral Mass.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

There were several movers and shakers in the pews, including L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, L.A. Police Chief Michel Moore, and Janice Hahn, chair of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. In an interview after the service, former Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was also in attendance, said he first worked with O’Connell on community issues as a City Council member and that O’Connell had joined a diverse group of spiritual leaders who took turns praying for the city at the start of the pandemic.

“He had a light in him that hid how deeply he felt about the injustices around him,” Garcetti said. “He would open up your heart with a joke and then burrow into it with an ask that stretched you further than you thought possible. My heart feels ripped apart.”

Toward the end of the service, another David O’Connell got up to speak — the bishop’s nephew.

“I’m not sure if many of you have heard this before today, but my uncle liked to tell a joke,” he said, and the room filled with gentle laughter. “He liked to be the comedian, but thankfully he had a day job that seemed to be going a little bit better for him.”

The laughter grew louder.

David O'Connell, nephew of the bishop, speaks during the funeral Mass.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The younger O’Connell, who lives in Ireland, recalled an uncle who served as a rock for his entire Irish family and who never ended a phone call with his nephew without telling him how proud he was of him.

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“Uncle Dave was an inspiration to us our whole lives,” he said. “He taught us that if you have the capacity to help someone, you should do it. I can hear him so clearly in my mind saying, ‘That’s not a problem. I can do it.’ All he wanted to do was make things easier for everyone else and he never asked for a single thing, ever.”

The death of his uncle left his family heartbroken, he said. But for him, his family, and for everyone listening in today, he said, “he now saw an opportunity to pick up where his uncle had left off.”

“Help those that you can help. Lend an ear and listen to people. Respect each other. Be considerate and give others the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “Have patience, and give everyone a chance. Make sure that those who are close to you know that you love them and that you are proud of them.”

His voice cracked at that final statement.

As the two-hour funeral came to an end, Archbishop Gómez echoed those thoughts before sprinkling O’Connell’s cloth-covered casket with holy water and encasing it in incense smoke.

“As we honor him, and thank him, and follow his joyful example, his beautiful example of being close to Jesus,” Gómez said. “His example should be the way that we live.”

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