New York Times 5/7/00
For Countless People, O'Connor was a Source
of Compassion and Strength
By TINA KELLEY
Cardinal John O'Connor reached out to countless people, as
a priest, a counselor, and above all, a human being. Those whose lives were
touched by the cardinal remembered a compassionate man who listened, avidly and
carefully, a man whose active presence was as memorable as his eminence.
Comfort for a Family
In 1988, when John Winters, an usher, was killed in St. Patrick's Cathedral
by a deranged homeless man, Cardinal O'Connor rushed to comfort the survivors in
a way that has stayed with the victim's son, Sean Winters, 45, a priest in New
Jersey. The cardinal called the family, counseled them, arranged for a police
escort to the cemetery, brought them a papal blessing from Rome, and sent
flowers to Mr. Winters's widow, Rita, each Christmas, Easter and anniversary of
the murder until her death seven years later.
The cardinal presided at Mr. Winters's funeral. "He said my
father was a real hero, a martyr," for trying to save a police officer who was
also attacked that night, Father Winters said.
"We knew him at that time as a very sensitive, good priest.
That's what a good priest does," said Father Winters, who works as a hospital
chaplain in the Diocese of Metuchen. "That had a very profound impact on my
"What I learned from the cardinal was that ministry of
presence, to be with people who are in tremendous emotional or physical pain,"
Father Winters said.
Inspiration to Help Other
Christopher Bell, 42, head of a New Jersey nonprofit
group, remembers the exact date the cardinal was installed in New York.
"At that moment I was actually contemplating starting a home
for homeless mothers and children, and hearing him, I was further encouraged and
felt inspired to do that," he recalled. The following year, almost to the day,
Mr. Bell helped open the Good Counsel Home for Mothers and Children in Hoboken,
N.J. The agency now has seven homes, serving 100 mothers and babies nightly.
The cardinal helped Mr. Bell by writing to donors on behalf
of Good Counsel, giving grants from the Cardinal's Fund for Children, offering
Mr. Bell the occasional fatherly pat on the back, and being the host of a
breakfast for 40 supporters last year when the cardinal was so ill he had
canceled all outside appointments. " I felt his encouragement particularly when
he said and he repeated this -- that any pregnant woman from anywhere,
regardless of her situation, and where she was from, and how she got pregnant,
can get help in the diocese of New York, " Mr Bell said. "I knew he was talking
specifically to me, because that's what we do and he encouraged me to do more."
"Every time he opened his mouth, he has something that struck
me to my heart."
Guiding Hand for a Priest
Frank Pavone, 41, head of Priests for Life, an anti-abrotion group on
Staten Island, remembers entering St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers the first
year Cardinal O'Connor spent in New York.
"He took his own responsibility for ordaining us very seriously," Father
Pavone said, recalling how the cardinal invited all 50 seminarians to his
residence once a month for mass and social time.
"By listening to him, I learned so much of what I have learned about how to
preach, how to communicate the church's teaching with compassion and with
clarity," he said.
"When we would hear him speak in Saint Patrick's Cathedral, and there were
racial tensions erupting in the city he would say, 'Folks, what this means for
us is that we cannot be good Catholics and at the same time be racist. One
excludes the other.' And I came away, at the end of it not just knowing what a
particular verse of the Bible said, but here's how I have to respond to what's
going on in today's headlines here's how I can gauge how I'm living a Christian
A Bridge Between Faiths
Sandi Merle, 59, who describes herself as "just a Jewish kid from
Paterson New Jersey," counted the cardinal as her best friend.
"Five years ago he absolutely changed my life around," said Ms. Merle, who
now lives on the West Side of Manhattan . She had experienced clinical death
after heart surgery, and she needed to understand why she had been spared.
"Instead of going to my rabbi, I went to my cardinal, because he is the
wisest man I have ever known." She said. "He did help me find what it was I was
spared for to have a more active role in Jewish-Catholic dialogue."
Ms. Merle remembered her god-daughter's doctors diagnosed a brain aneurysm
two years ago and the cardinal began writing and calling the child and kept her
picture on his desk. Even when he was sick last summer, he drove 185 miles to
spend an hour and a half with her, and gave her a Kiddush cup, a wine goblet.
"He said, 'This way you and I can think of each other every Friday night when
we make the prayer over the wine,' Ms. Merle met the cardinal at a reception
given by the New York Board of Rabbis, when he first came to New York. She was
moved to tears by an anti-abortion comment he made in the receiving line, and he
"From that day on, I would go out of my way to go to functions where I knew
he was being honored, and even to attend Mass, which was very peculiar for me.
But it was his homily I was interested in. I learned more about both our faith
groups from listening to him," she said.
She valued his sense of humor, even when he was ill. When he was recovering form
pneumonia recently, she took him a care package. "I said, I brought the chicken
soup you love, for your pneumonia, and he said, 'Oh really? What did you bring
"He was worried about you, because you don't have the same theology of death as
we do". Ms. Merle remembers Mother Agnes telling her. "He was worried and said
keep an eye on Sandi, don't let her fall apart." The cardinal knew that if Ms.
Merle made a promise to him, she would keep it.
"This eminence, this towering figure of God's best creation-this was God's
Funeral Homily by
Bernard Cardinal Law
Cardinal's Legacy Felt at
In Memory of Cardinal O'Connor