With a broad zeal for life, Brother Paul remembered for love of fellow man, and man’s best friend

| February 27, 2015 | 0 Comments
Brother Paul O'Donnell poses with Rocky, one of two Labrador retrievers he and the brothers received in 2003 as a gift from friends Nicole and Ryan Selleck. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Brother Paul O’Donnell poses with Rocky, one of two Labrador retrievers he and the brothers received in 2003 as a gift from friends Nicole and Ryan Selleck. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Rocky and Ruby are fixtures at the Franciscan Brothers of Peace friary in St. Paul. They arrived in 2003, not long after the death of Brother Michael Gaworski, who founded the order in 1982.

The two Labrador retrievers were a gift to the brothers, specifically Brother Paul O’Donnell, from friends Nicole and Ryan Selleck, who belong to the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul. The couple originally chose to give the brothers one puppy to help console them after the loss of Brother Michael. But Brother Paul, a lifelong animal lover, chose two.

For more than a decade, the two beloved canines have freely roamed the halls of the friary, a converted convent on Lafond Avenue. They slept in Brother Paul’s bedroom every night, and they were at this side when he died unexpectedly in his sleep on Feb. 20.

That morning, the brothers thought their guardian overall was sleeping late because he had stayed up late the previous night working on their quarterly news magazine. When he failed to show for morning prayer, Brother Pio King and Brother James Voeller checked on him. They found he had died, with Rocky and Ruby remaining faithfully by his side.

A funeral Mass for Brother Paul was offered Feb. 27 at the Cathedral of St. Paul with internment at Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights.

Animal lover

Brother Paul’s passion for the pro-life cause is widely known and documented; with Brother Michael Gaworski, he founded Pro-Life Action Ministries in St. Paul prior to entering religious life and sat on the board of several pro-life organizations. His community was on the frontlines of advocacy for the life of Terri Schiavo, who died in 2005 after a court ordered the removal of her feeding tube. The brothers’ work also includes serving the poor, sidewalk counseling and prayer at abortion clinics, and, housing international victims of torture.

A few days after Paul’s death, his friends and family fondly recalled Brother Paul’s affection for animals as well as people. His sister, Barbara McCann, described the joy her brother experienced upon receiving a fishbowl from their grandparents at age 10 or 11. He wrote a thank-you letter with a poem, a copy of which McCann passed on to the brothers: “I am so glad to be alive to run and play and grow. There are so many things to do and there is so much to know. Inside me lives a secret life hid where I cannot see, for deep within my soul lives God the blessed Trinity.”

Brother Paul used the fish bowl from his grandparents to hold a pair of piranhas that he acquired at a local park in Omaha, Neb., where he grew up.

“They weren’t supposed to be there, and he caught them,” McCann said. “He was fascinated by them.”

His mother, however, was far less enthusiastic about these new “pets.”

“Mom didn’t want to look at them,” McCann said. So, she made her son keep the fish bowl in the basement.

Brother Conrad Richardson was familiar with the childhood story: “He fed them cold hotdogs,” he said, “and they ended up having to put a lid on the top because his mom would come down to do laundry, and that would excite these piranhas and they would start jumping out of the water and scaring her half to death. So, they had to put a lid on the thing so the piranhas wouldn’t jump out.”

Brother Paul’s love of fish endured, and he maintained a large fish tank in the community room of the friary. His brother and sister-in-law gave it to him as a gift to celebrate his 25th anniversary of religious life several years ago.

In a Feb. 22 letter about Brother Paul to the community’s friends, Brother Conrad called him a “true Franciscan” as he was “an admirer of God’s creation and a friend of the animals.” Rocky and Ruby had a special place in Brother Paul’s heart.

“To have these two adorable puppies to take care of just brought joy to the household,” said Brother John Mary. “They were very cathartic and healing, I’m sure, for Paul, and all of us after Michael’s passing.” Brother Michael founded the Franciscan Brothers of Peace in 1982; five years later Brother Paul joined. In 1991, Brother Michael suffered cardiac and respiratory arrest and became quadriplegic. His brothers cared for him until his death in 2003.

‘Childlike goodness’

In the letter to friends, Brother Conrad said some of the community’s best times together were at their retreat place.

“He loved nothing more than playing fetch with the dogs and the lake’s edge and exercising a bit of daring when it came to water tubing behind a boat,” he wrote.

“He was just a kid at heart,” said Nicole Selleck, who asked Brother Paul to be her oldest son Jack’s godfather. “That’s just the best way to summarize [him].

That gift of “childlike goodness,” as Selleck called it, came alive every August at the annual barbecue the brothers put on for family, friends and supporters of their ministry.

“The kids always looked forward to the barbecue that they have,” Selleck said. “Paul did a fantastic job of coming up with games on the lawn. And, all the neighborhood kids would come, and my kids couldn’t wait to come and run and do all the games on the lawn.”

The brothers’ weekly “brotherhood family nights” at the friary also featured Brother Paul’s zany games, allowing the brothers to relax and refresh themselves from daily ministry.

“What hair he did have, he let down,” Brother Conrad joked, playfully noting being short of hair himself. “And, that’s going to be sorely missed.”

Next for the brothers will be electing a new guardian overall, a position Brother Paul held for more than two decades. Brother Joseph Katzmarek is filling that role in the interim. In May, near the feast of Pentecost, a new leader will be elected.

While the brothers don’t expect that anyone will be able to fill Brother Paul’s shoes, they have a quiet but strong trust in the God who has taken care of them over the last 32 years, in good times and bad.

Perhaps, they will take their inspiration from a wooden sign that hung in Brother Paul’s room bearing the title of his favorite movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“We didn’t go through a Christmas without having to watch it,” Brother Conrad said of the film.

He added: “[His] was a wonderful life. The word ‘life’ for Paul was so broad — defending the Gospel of life, living life to the fullest. The word ‘life’ is his signature word.”

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