|Cardinal O'Connell's mansion in Brighton MA|
I debated a bit on including Archbishop Corrigan in this series as his fault was not so much the personal extravagance of a Myers or a Gregory, as it was overlooking the material needs of his faithful in order to “fit in” with the WASP establishment of Upper-Crust New Yorkers. I must admit—in full disclosure—that I have always detested Corrigan for his role in the McGlynn case and his opposition to the liberal policies of Gibbons, Ireland and the other Americanists. So let the reader be aware of my biases and make the necessary corrections in his or her mind.
While Corrigan lived comfortably in his Fifth-Avenue mini-mansion (mini, that is, compared to the Villard mansion across Park Avenue or the Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Astor, Frick or other Robber Baron establishments), there was a new breed of bishops coming along that would not settle for the comparative modesty of the Cardinal’s House adjoining the Cathedral.
Now before I get into our next targeted prince-bishop, let me—again in the interest of full disclosure—admit that despite a total lack of interest in sports in general and baseball in particular, I am a New York Yankee fan and the reason that I am so passionately enamored of the Bronx Bombers (a team that I hated in the days of the Brooklyn Dodgers—and yes, I am that old) is not about the Yankees but because I hate the Boston Red Sox. And the reason that I hate the Red Sox has nothing to do with them personally (individually or collectively), but that I hate everything about Boston. And the reason that I hate everything about Boston—a city I have been to only three times in my three-score plus years—is that I once had a boss from Boston and he was TLGC (The Lowest of God’s Creatures). I mean this guy was a lazy, self-indulgent, arrogant, narcissistic, lying, stealing sack of shi*. (Yes, I am in touch with my feelings.) And I tend to associate this worthless personality with Bostonians because X was not alone in his sociopathic temperament but shared it with the prelate who was possibly the slimiest American ever to wear a miter.
William Henry O’Connell was actually born in Lowell Massachusetts in 1859 to John and Bridget O’Connell. His father died while he was still a child and the family had financial distress. William was not much given to the athletic side of life but excelled at music and was an accomplished pianist. He went to study under the Sulpicians at St. Charles College in Ellicott City Maryland. The Sulpicians—and this is important for later on in his story—deemed him unfit for the priesthood and sent him packing. He continued his studies under the Jesuits at Boston College where he excelled in both the sciences and in philosophy. Taking up studies again for the priesthood he went to the North American College where he could avoid the Sulpicians who at that time ran the Boston Archdiocesan Seminary. O’Connell was ordained in 1884 in Rome by Lucido Cardinal Parocchi and then returned to Boston. He was a priest in the Boston Archdiocese only ten years before returning to Rome as the Rector of his Alma Mater, the North American College. In 1901 he was consecrated in Rome to be Bishop of Portland Maine.
It is very interesting to note the consecrators for this episcopal ordination. The principal consecrator was Cardinal Satolli who had been the first Apostolic Delegate to the United States. The co-consecrators were Archbishops Edmund Stonor and Rafael Merry del Val. Satolli was a natural choice given his American experience. Stonor, an Englishman from an old recusant family, was chaplain in Rome to various groups. But it is Merry del Val who gives us the curious link to O’Connell’s rise.
Rafael Merry del Val was born in 1865 in London where his father, the Marquis Merry del Val, was secretary to the Spanish Embassy. His blood line was intriguing—with English, Scots, Dutch, and Irish progenitors. In fact the “Merry” in the Merry del Val name and marquisal title was a legacy of his Irish ancestors who had settled in Seville at a time that many noble Irish had fled their native land as a result of a failed rebellion against the English. Merry del Val thrived on his English connections and even after the family returned to Spain in 1878 continued much of his education in Britain. He was a trusted advisor to Leo XIII and a member of the Papal Household. He was on the 1896 commission that advised Leo to issue the Bull, Apostolicae Curae, declaring Anglican Orders invalid. He served as one of the Papal delegation to England for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. (The diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the English Crown in the 19th century are a fascinating topic that I would love to explore at some point.)
Merry del Val’s influence would rise with the election of Pius X in 1903. Merry del Val had been secretary of the Conclave that elected Pius and he seems to have played a strong role in the defeat of the expected choice, Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro. Pius, a man who knew he was inexperienced in the matters of world diplomacy, was exceptionally dependent on Merry del Val who as papal Secretary of State was almost a “shadow pope.” O’Connell hitched his wagon to this rising star.
The friendship between Merry del Val—an aristocrat’s aristocrat—and the vulgar but affected son of Lowell textile factory worker is hard to explain. They were totally “chalk and cheese” as the Irish say. Merry del Val was cultured, understated, and while having an iron fist invariably kept it in its velvet glove. He maneuvered this diplomatically so that you didn’t realize he had stabbed you in the back until you read your obituary in the Times. O’Connell on the other hand was—despite his skills with the piano—crude, outspoken, openly vicious and retributive. Merry del Val hid his ambition within the folds of his superb competence. O’Connell was shameless in seeking advancement and using power with a vengeance to keep others from challenging his position. What they did have in common was membership in what today is referred to as the Vatican’s “Lavender Mafia.”
In 1906, at the urging of Merry del Val, O’Connell was designated as coadjutor and successor to Archbishop John Williams of Boston. Williams had the courtesy of dying just over a year later and so giving O’Connell free rein (or, in this case, reign).
Henry Morton Robinson wrote the 1950 novel, The Cardinal, with an auxiliary character, Lawrence Cardinal Glennon, being based on William O’Connell. (In the 1963 film version, Glennon was played by the famous director, John Huston.) The Glennon character is a bit of a curmudgeon but an honorable man none the less. That is one of the things that makes The Cardinal pure fiction.
In 1927 O’Connell built for himself a huge (33,000 square feet) four-story Italianate villa on the grounds of Saint John’s Seminary in Brighton, just outside Boston. This remained the home of his successors until sold, along with an adjoining 28 acres, by Cardinal Sean O’Malley to settle law-suits against the Archdiocese incurred by his predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law, for clerical sexual abuse issues.
Unlike Corrigan and his contemporaries, O’Connell was not trying to crack the fortifications of the old WASP social network. O’Connell saw that the rise of the middle class and the burden of income and estate taxes were leveling the playing field. He had nothing but contempt for the old Boston Brahmins. With John (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald and James M. Curley as mayors, the Back Bay Irish Catholics now held Boston. O’Connell proudly crowed: “The Puritan has passed; the Catholic remains.
Ella B. Eades, a Boston Brahmin who converted to Catholicism and served in Rome as secretary to Cardinal Simeoni, prefect for the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith and who holds the distinction of perhaps having the most viperish tongue in Vatican history—a honor among honors—hated O’Connell and had this to say about him:
“Monsignor Pomposity…is so invariably rude, ill-bred, and disobliging…I suppose he does not know better, being low-born and common, pitch-forked, suddenly to a position which has turned his head. Like all ill-bred Paddies, I am not, in his eyes, sufficiently rich, or fashionable to be treated with even ordinary courtesy.”
More on this Prince of the Church in the next posting.