Father Dave was a good guy. You would have liked him. He had white hair. A warm smile. Good sense of humor. He was Irish to the core.
He was one of those clergymen who just got it. They say he could look at you and you just knew, this guy understands me.
Which is a rarity in the priesthood. A lot of times, a Catholic priest grows numb to the world around him. After all, he’s seen everything. Heard everything. It’s easy to get desensitized.
But not David.
David Gerard O’Connell was born on August 16, 1953, in Cork, Ireland. A sweet baby with a constant smile.
He was born into hard times. Ireland was no cakewalk in the ‘50s. Ireland was pure poverty. Ireland was neither a safe nor a happy place. Nearly 80,000 were unemployed. Half the country was hungry. People died of starvation.
And, bonus, the Catholic church wasn’t making things any easier. Hundreds of thousands of young women who got pregnant outside marriage were forced to give up their infants, or were sent to mental institutions. It was the Great Depression on steroids.
And that’s the era David was born into. He grew up during a miserable period of world history. He grew up the son of a farmer. He had nothing.
But he was a good kid. Cheerful. Kind. He went to college in Dublin, and when forced with a choice of academic major, he chose to study God.
David could have studied anything he wanted with his bright mind. He could have pursued business. He could have chased after his fortune. But he chose the ministry.
He became an ordained priest at 26 years old. He was baby faced and wholesome. Beautifully naive. He had no earthly idea what he was getting into. Thank God.
The Church sent him to Los Angeles, of all places. A humble boy from Cork, Ireland, sent to America’s second largest city. Father Dave couldn’t have felt more out of place if you would’ve painted him purple and placed him into a Cuisinart blender.
But Father Dave was a hard worker. He was a guy who looked you in the eye and cut through all the B.S., and the trappings of religion, and he got straight to business. “God loves you,” he’d say. “No matter who you are.”
He spent most of his years as a pastor, working the gutter jobs of the priesthood. He worked mostly on the streets. He worked with gangs, with the homeless, and he interjected himself into the violence of Southern California.
During the Rodney King riots, he was there. During COVID, when LA was falling apart, he was a voice of reason.
He arranged housing for ex-gang members. He fed Latino immigrants out of his own pocket. He organized efforts to aid migrants from Central America. He never stopped.
He met you where you were. If you were on the street, high on crack, dying of malnutrition, Father Dave came to you. If you were a pregnant teenager, and you needed someone, he was there.
His vestments were perpetually soiled by hard work. His collar was always wet from the tears of former murderers, immigrants, the homeless, widows and orphans.
A few days ago, they found Father Dave’s body in his home. He was shot in the upper torso. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Homicide. It doesn’t matter what happened, not for the purposes of this column. What matters is that a beautiful life was lived.
Hordes of his friends and parishioners gathered at the scene of his death, to remember this life. They fingered beads, and prayed the Rosary. They retold stories about Father Dave. They cried until they had dehydration headaches.
They remembered his last sermons.
“I remember when I was 11 years old,” Father Dave once said behind the pulpit. “My father was a quiet Irishman, a farmer, he never said much.
“One day I got test results of my county exam, after I left sixth grade, I earned seventh in the county, and my father shook my hand, and he said, ‘I’m so proud of you, son.’ That was 57 years ago, and yet I still remember those words. That’s how powerful those loving words were.”
I wish I could have seen David O’Connell’s face when God uttered those same words.