For Countless People, O'Connor was a Source of Compassion and Strength

Tina Kelley

Document Publication: New York Times - New York, NY

Publication Date: May 07, 2000


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 life."

"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 Life."

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 comforted her.

"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 for me?'"

"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 best work."

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