Tag Archives: Pilgrims to the Northland

Through Blood and Faith

August 19, 2017

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Today marks the one year anniversary of my dear cousin’s death.  Fr. Marvin O’Connell was technically my first cousin once removed and he is the one who taught me how to figure out those confusing family lines.  A priest of this diocese and history professor at the University of St. Thomas for a number of years, he spent most of his years teaching at Notre Dame in South Bend.  Early in my life I remember hearing that I had a cousin who was a priest. I met him on a couple of occasions. A priest in the family gets called in for weddings, funerals and baptisms.  I didn’t pay him much thought until I had a (re)conversion to my Catholic faith and suddenly the thought of a cousin who was a priest gave me someone else (besides my pastor) that I could take my many questions to.  My connection to him was through blood and faith, it was only latter that I learned of his academic notoriety.

When my son was little he kept Fr. Marvin’s ordination picture in his room. It seemed at the time he thought he looked like Fr. Andrew Cozzens (now Bishop Cozzens) and Fr. Andrew was an associate at our parish at the time and my son had idolized him. The physical resemblance of the two was mostly in my  son’s eyes, but a young priest looks like any young priest to a 7 year old. One day we invited our pastor over for dinner and when touring the house he asked who the priest was in the picture.  When I explained it was my cousin Fr. Marvin O’Connell, he responded with excitement, “You mean THE Fr. Marvin O’Connell?!” Prior to that I never knew he was so well known – at least in priest circles.

He authored 10 books and lectured often.  His notoriety at Notre Dame is legendary. He even threw Joe Montana out of his classroom once  for falling asleep. (Check out this beautiful tribute written by one of his students here). Right now, a group of alumni are making the historic walk in the footsteps of the founder of Notre Dame, Fr. Edward Sorin.  The group studied Marv’s biography of Fr. Sorin in preparation for this trip. (Follow them here).

I called him Marv and when I attended his funeral many were surprised by this affectionate nick name I had for him. It seems many of even his close friends called him Fr. O’Connell – at his insistence.

It is not for his academic prowess that I miss and remember his passing today. It is for his love and encouragement to me. On one trip to visit my family in Faribault, he not only anchored me to the history of the town in which I lived by telling me about the Faribault Plan, (A plan which could force the state’s financial support of Catholic schools which he wrote about in his book on Archbishop Ireland) but also anchored me in my family history.  As he left that day, he held my chin lovingly and told me that I reminded him of our shared grandmother (His grandmother and my great-grandmother) Grandma Hannah O’Connell was a formidable woman. She painted, wrote poetry and prose and volunteered as an Army nurse for a time.  Our shared family resemblance didn’t end there.  At one point while I was working for the Archdiocese, I found myself getting into hot water because of my outspoken opinions.  Seeking council from Fr. Marvin he told me he wasn’t surprised. “It seems to run in the family,” he said.  Blood (family) seems to bind us in many ways.

His encouragement of my writing was especially important to me.  As I was just starting to develop this skill, he encouraged me to press on and saw a gift in my work.

To honor his memory, sharpen my writing skills and possibly grow closer to knowing this “old goat” better through his work, I am planning on finally reading his last book: Pilgrims to the Northland – The  History of the Archdiocese of St. Paul, 1840-1962. In addition to reading it – I hope to travel to a few of the places mentioned and write about it here in this blog.

I hope you follow me on these periodic posts as I hope to also grow closer to God on this journey through blood and faith.

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