Father Marvin O’Connell, Church historian, dies

| August 22, 2016 | 0 Comments
Father Marvin O'Connell, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and historian, holds his book "Pilgrims to the Northland: The Archdiocese of St. Paul, 1840-1962" in this 2009 file photo. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Father Marvin O’Connell, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and a historian, holds his book “Pilgrims to the Northland: The Archdiocese of St. Paul, 1840-1962” in this 2009 file photo. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Father Marvin O’Connell, 86, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame, died Aug. 19 at Holy Cross Village in Notre Dame, Indiana.

Born July 9, 1930, Father O’Connell grew up in the Twin Cities, the only child of Richard and Anna Mae (Kelly) O’Connell. He studied at Nazareth Hall and the St. Paul Seminary, both in St. Paul, and was ordained at the Cathedral of St. Paul on June 2, 1956, by Bishop James Byrne.

He served as assistant pastor of St. Mathias in Wanda (now in the Diocese of New Ulm), until September 1956, when he was sent to the University of Notre Dame for graduate studies. He earned a doctorate degree in history from Notre Dame in 1959, at which time he served in the University (then-College) of St. Thomas’ history department until 1972.

During his time in the archdiocese, Father O’Connell was a columnist for The Catholic Spirit’s predecessor, the Catholic Bulletin, from 1966 to 1972. In a 2006 interview with The Catholic Spirit, Father O’Connell said the era provided great commentary opportunities for “Tracts for the Times,” which was syndicated in 30 other Catholic newspapers across the country.

“It was the ’60s, after all,” Father O’Connell had said.

From 1972 until 1995, Father O’Connell was a history department faculty member at the University of Notre Dame, chairing the department from 1974 to 1980 and directing the school’s undergraduate program in London from 1993 to 1995.

Father O’Connell wrote several books detailing American Church history, including “Pilgrims to the Northland: The Archdiocese of St. Paul, 1840-1962” (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009) and “John Ireland and the American Catholic Church” (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988). In 1995, he won the John Gilmary Shea Prize for his book “Critics on Trial: An Introduction to the Catholic Modernist Crisis” (Catholic University of America Press, 1994). He retired from Notre Dame’s faculty that same year. Father O’Connell also wrote a biography of Notre Dame’s founder, Father Edward Sorin of the Congregation of Holy Cross. He became a retired priest of the archdiocese in 2000.

Retired priest Father James Reidy was ordained with Father O’Connell and described him as “a good and faithful priest, and a great historian.”

“We used to say he had become the premier Catholic Church historian here in the United States. . . . His books were just superb,” Father Reidy said.

Although he never served as a parish priest, Father O’Connell felt connected to students and families through his teaching, said Sharon Wilson, whose father was a cousin of Father O’Connell’s.

Wilson, who attended the funeral Mass Aug. 24 at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Notre Dame, said she heard many stories of how her cousin was integral in people’s faith journeys, including her own.

“He was very steadfast in reminding me to go back to prayer,” said Wilson, a parishioner of Divine Mercy in Faribault. “He probably wouldn’t consider himself an evangelizer or spiritual director, but by example and counsel, he brought me back into what my faith really means.”

Ultimately, though, Father O’Connell’s writing was where his gifts were. Wilson said his writing left readers with a sense of not just history, but that they were part of history.

“And it was always about moving on toward the future and how we had gotten here,” Wilson said.

“To me, he was much more than an academic; he was much like a beloved uncle,” she added.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda presided at the funeral Mass. Burial was in the Holy Cross Community Cemetery at Notre Dame.

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