The Mausoleum Chapel that had been the tomb
of Cardinal William O'Connell before his remains
were expelled from what is now Boston College
I left off half-way through the saga of William Cardinal O’Connell. I had already mentioned his palatial Italian Renaissance villa in Brighton which he built for himself and his successors and which Cardinal O’Malley ironically had to sell off to pay the debts incurred by the malfeasance of his predecessor, Cardinal Law, in handling matters of sexual abuse. But there is so much more to the O’Connell story that I am not ready to move on.
When it comes to irony, my favorite O’Connell story is irony’s payback to one of the most mean-spirited acts of cold revenge that I have ever encountered. Remember that I mentioned in a previous posting about O’Connell that he had been expelled from St. Charles Seminary in Ellicott City MD by the Sulpician Fathers who ran the seminary? They determined that he was “not fit” for the priesthood—an euphemism that generally meant he was discovered to be sexually inappropriate with other members of the seminary community. (It could mean other things but as O’Connell’s history will indicate, the usual meaning is the more probable. O’Connell certainly did not suffer from academic limitations or from health issues, the other reasons often given for dismissal, but not usually under the ambiguous banner of “not fit.” ) In any event O’Connell went on to complete his college work at Boston College and then re-entered studies for the priesthood in the Boston Archdiocese. He did not study at the Boston seminary of St. John’s—which was run by those picky Sulpicians who had cast him once before into the outer darkness—but went on to the North American College in Rome. Eventually he ended up as Rector of the North American and then returned to the States first as Bishop of Portland MA and then as Coadjutor Archbishop of Boston. O’Connell took over the diocese in 1907 and in 1911 had his revenge on the Sulpicians—ordering them out of St. John’s seminary. What makes the story really great—and gives us an insight into the soul of this Prince of the Church—is that he told the Sulpicians to “get out, and take your dead with you.” The Sulpicians had to dis-inter their deceased confreres from the seminary cemetery and arrange for their reburial outside the Archdiocese of Boston.
Now for the irony. When Cardinal O’Malley sold the Cardinal’s residence to Boston College as part of BC’s campus expansion, there was an issue about a small chapel on the grounds. Cardinal O’Connell had not wanted to be buried in the Cathedral crypt along with the other Bishops/Archbishops of Boston and constructed a mortuary chapel on his palace grounds. Boston College announced that they didn’t care to have the Cardinal buried on their newly acquired property and so O’Connell—like the Sulpicians whose mortal rest he had disturbed—was dug up and moved. His new grave is in the seminary from which he had the Sulps carted away. Even Cardinals are subject to karma. Maybe expecially subject to karma.
There is much more to tell of this prince. O’Connell was to prove a major embarrassment to the Church over the years of his Cardinaliate. His nephew, a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, was aware of the Cardinals’ homosexual affair with a married judge and used the knowledge to cover his own embezzlement of funds from the Archdiocese to support a secret wife. O’Connell had made the nephew, a Monsignor James O’Connell, chancellor of the Archdiocese, a position which gave him access to diocesan monies. The nephew secretly married a woman in Ohio in 1913. O’Connell’s secret was safe as long as Merry del Val was running the Vatican. Merry del Val fell from power with the death of Pius X in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. During the War years there was little communication between the American Church and Italy because of the disruptions of war and the Pope, Benedict XV, was preoccupied in trying to bring about a peace, but O’Connell’s injudicious behavior would come back to haunt him. In 1922 when confronted about his nephew, O’Connell lied to the newly elected Pius XI—and was caught in the lie—which sealed his fall from influence in Rome. (Pius was an inveterate foe of Merry del Val and the Spanish Cardinal’s influence came to an end with Pius’ election.) O’Connell still had great power in the American Church, however, where he continued to exercise a bullying influence over the other bishops especially after the death of Cardinal Gibbons in 1921. O’Connell found an unholy ally in Cardinal Denis Dougherty of Philadelphia in attempts to suppress the emergence of a national bishop’s conference. There had been the National Catholic War Council, organized in 1917 under the auspices of Cardinal Gibbons, to coordinate an American Catholic response to the social needs created by World War I. O’Connell and Dougherty wanted this body disbanded as soon as the war was over but fortunately the Gibbons party outmaneuvered them and established the National Catholic Welfare Council to succeed the National Catholic War Council. Gibbons knew he was an old man and that O’Connell was just itching to step into his place as leader of the American hierarchy—and he knew as well that O’Connell’s agenda and style would be very different from the Americanist and democratic style which he, Gibbons, used in consulting with the other bishops. O’Connell and Dougherty, in Rome for the conclave that elected Pius XI in 1922, obtained a decree suppressing the NCWC, but with the help of Papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri (another Merry del Val opponent), the Executive Committee of the NCWC won a delay on enforcing the decree while they polled the American bishops about their desire to continue with a national conference. O’Connell protested to Rome that this “plebiscite” was just proof that the American Church had been taken over by “Democracy, Presbyterianism, and Congregationalism.” (So much for his claim that “the Puritan had passed.” Apparently the Puritan [Congregationalist] had simply become a Catholic and the sort of Catholic that O’Connell didn’t want.)
O’Connell and Dougherty believed their position as Cardinals should have given them authority over the other bishops and rendering any sort of consultative body superfluous. As I said, however, O’Connell’s stock was low in Rome and he lost the case. The NCWC continued and its successor nowadays is the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops—still the bête noire of the Catholic wing-nuts.