National News

Bishop O’Connell’s Legacy: ‘He Brought Us All Closer Together’

Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez places the Book of Gospels on the casket of Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop David G. O’Connell during his funeral Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels March 3, 2023. Bishop O’Connell was fatally shot at his home in Hacienda Heights Feb. 18. (Photo: OSV News)

LOS ANGELES — There was an instance at the March 2 memorial Mass for Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell that Gregory Warner realized wouldn’t have happened in years past: the Knights of Peter Claver and the Knights of Columbus came together as an honor guard for the casket. 

Warner, the Knights of Peter Claver Western States District Conference president who knighted Bishop O’Connell in the early 2010s, credits the late Los Angeles bishop for making instances like that possible through his yearslong work bringing the organizations together. 

“We brought him into the order, and he was instrumental in bringing in the Knights of Peter Claver and the Knights of Columbus. It was something he really advocated for,” Warner said. “Even today, since he died, I can even see the love between the Columbans and Peter Clavers getting closer, so he’s still working, and it’s bringing us a lot closer together.” 

The organizations were also both in the procession at Bishop O’Connell’s funeral on March 3. 

Founded in 1909, the Knights of Peter Claver is the nation’s oldest and largest black Catholic organization. It was created to allow men of color to participate in a Catholic fraternal organization. The Ladies Auxiliary was founded in 1922. 

Differences between the Knights of Peter Claver and Knights of Columbus stem back to that time, when members of the Knights of Columbus were said to oppose or end the candidacy of black people from joining the organization. The voting method that allowed that practice has long since changed, and the organizations’ relationship has improved. 

Warner remembers Bishop O’Connell’s desire to be knighted and how it differed from most priests. Normally, Warner said, priests are made honorary knights, so they don’t have to go through the initiation. 

But Bishop O’Connell insisted on doing so, becoming a member of the Knights of Peter Claver St. Michael’s Council number 400. 

“Bishop O’Connell wanted to become a brother knight. He wanted to experience the whole thing of what it means to be a Knight of Peter Claver,” Warner said. “And he was one of the brothers.” 

Darrell Dickerson, the Knights of Peter Claver Western States District Deputy, and Karen Pinson, who holds the same title for the Ladies Auxiliary, brought a proclamation of commendation and recognition of Bishop O’Connell’s Knights of Peter Claver membership to his funeral, which was presented to his family. 

More than 3,500 people gathered at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral for Bishop O’Connell’s funeral. It was celebrated by Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles. In attendance were Cardinal Roger Mahony, former archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, and Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego. 

Bishop O’Connell’s family flew in from Ireland, as did more than 30 bishops from across the country. There were also 300-plus clergy, 32 civic leaders, and 18 dignitaries in attendance. 

Speaking at the funeral Mass, Bishop O’Connell’s nephew, also named David O’Connell, took the opportunity to urge everybody to “pick up where he left off and to carry the example that he set” of compassion and caring. 

“Help those that you can help. Lend an ear and listen to people. Respect each other, be considerate, and give each other the benefit of the doubt,” O’Connell said. “Have patience and give everyone a chance. Make sure that those who are close to you know that you love them and that you are proud of them.” 

Homilist Msgr. Jarlath Cunnane, Bishop O’Connell’s best friend, recognized Bishop O’Connell not just as his friend but as “the friend of Jesus Christ” and “the friend of the poor.” He highlighted the way Bishop O’Connell knew the presence of Jesus existed in the strangers around him and always found the good in people. 

Speaking with The Tablet before the service, Warner and other local Knights of Peter Claver recognized Bishop O’Connell the way so many have in the weeks since his death — as a peacemaker who worked tirelessly to bring people together. 

Lady Knight of Peter Claver Marla Clark-Sanders met then-“Father Dave” at Ascension Parish in Los Angeles in the late 1990s. She remembers the impact he had after the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots, talking about the hardships of marginalized people in the community. 

She described him as a “true shepherd” who will be missed.