William Henry O'Connell

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William Henry O'Connell
Cardinal, Archbishop of Boston
See Boston
Appointed February 7, 1906 (Coadjutor)
Installed August 30, 1907
Term ended April 22, 1944
Predecessor John Joseph Williams
Successor Richard Cushing
Other posts Cardinal-Priest of S. Clemente
Ordination June 8, 1884
by Lucido Parocchi
Consecration May 19, 1901
by Francesco Satolli
Created cardinal November 27, 1911
by Pius X
Rank Cardinal-Priest
Personal details
Birth name William Henry O'Connell
Born (1859-12-08)December 8, 1859
Lowell, Massachusetts
Died April 22, 1944(1944-04-22) (aged 84)
Brighton, Massachusetts
Previous post
Coat of arms William Henry O'Connell's coat of arms
Ordination history of
William Henry O'Connell
Episcopal consecration
Consecrated by Francesco Satolli
Date May 19, 1901
Episcopal succession
Bishops consecrated by William Henry O'Connell as principal consecrator
Joseph Gaudentius Anderson July 25, 1909
John Joseph Nilan April 28, 1910
John Bertram Peterson November 10, 1927
Thomas Addis Emmet, S.J. September 21, 1930
Richard Cushing June 29, 1939

William Henry O'Connell (December 8, 1859 – April 22, 1944) was an American cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. He served as Archbishop of Boston from 1907 until his death, and was elevated to the cardinalate in 1911.

Early life

William O'Connell was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, to John and Bridget (née Farrelly) O'Connell, who were Irish immigrants. The youngest of eleven children, he had six brothers and four sisters. His father worked at a textile mill and died when William was four years old.[1] During his high school career, he excelled at music, particularly the piano and organ.[1]

O'Connell entered St. Charles College in Ellicott City, Maryland, in 1876. At St. Charles, he was a pupil of the noted poet John Banister Tabb. He returned to Massachusetts two years later and entered Boston College, from which he graduated in 1881 with gold medals in philosophy, physics, and chemistry. He then furthered his studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.


O'Connell was ordained to the priesthood by Lucido Cardinal Parocchi on June 8, 1884. A pneumonia and bronchial congestion cut short his pursuit of a doctorate in divinity at the Pontifical Urban Athenaeum, forcing him to return to the United States in 1885 without his degree.[1]

He then served as curate of St. Joseph Church in Medford until 1886, when he became curate of St. Joseph Church in the West End of Boston.[1] Returning to Rome, O'Connell was named rector of the North American College in 1895. He was raised to the rank of Domestic Prelate of His Holiness in 1897.

Episcopal career

Bishop of Portland in Maine

On February 8, 1901, O'Connell was appointed the third Bishop of Portland, Maine, by Pope Leo XIII. He received his episcopal consecration on the following May 19 from Francesco Cardinal Satolli, with Archbishops Edmund Stonor and Rafael Merry del Val, at the Lateran Basilica. Upon his arrival in Maine, he was given an official reception by Governor John F. Hill.[1] He was presented with a reliquary of the True Cross by Pope Pius X after the latter's election in 1903.[1]

In 1905, in addition to his duties as a diocesan bishop, O'Connell was named papal envoy to Emperor Meiji of Japan; he was also decorated with the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure. He was made an Assistant at the Pontifical Throne in 1905 as well. He was also viewed as having actively campaigned to become Archbishop of Boston, donating to numerous Vatican causes and publicly expressing his loyalty to the pope.[2]

Archbishop of Boston, and Cardinal

Painting by Albert Bernhard Uhle

O'Connell was named Coadjutor Archbishop, with right of succession, of Boston, and Titular Archbishop of Constantina on February 21, 1906. As coadjutor, he served as the designated successor of Archbishop John Williams, who was then in declining health. He later succeeded Williams as the second Archbishop of Boston upon the latter's death on August 30, 1907.

On November 27, 1911, O'Connell became Boston's first Archbishop to become Cardinal, and was given the title of Cardinal-Priest of S. Clemente.[3] O'Connell was late to two papal conclaves in a row, in 1914 and 1922, due to having to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the slower transportation of the day. He made a protest to Pope Pius XI, who in response lengthened the time between the death of the Pope and the start of the conclave. O'Connell was finally able to participate in the subsequent 1939 conclave, although by that time air travel was available.

O'Connell favored a highly centralized diocesan organization, encompassing schools, hospitals, and asylums in addition to parishes. O'Connell wielded immense political and social power in Massachusetts, earning him the nickname, "Number One."[2] For instance, he was responsible for defeating a bill to establish a state lottery in 1935, and for defeating a referendum liberalizing state birth control laws in 1942.[2] The only politician who had anywhere near O'Connell's political clout was Governor (and future U.S. President) Calvin Coolidge, but even Coolidge picked his battles carefully, preferring to ignore the Archbishop whenever possible. In the years leading up to the Second World War O'Connell became a powerful force for the neutralists in trying to keep the United States out of World War II, in the pre-Pearl Harbor era.


Having presided over the marriage of Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., and Rose Fitzgerald in 1914,[4] he asked actress Gloria Swanson to end her affair with Kennedy.[5]

He opposed the Child Labor Amendment and called Hollywood "the scandal of the nation."

He denounced the theories of Albert Einstein as "authentic atheism, even if camouflaged as cosmic pantheism."[6]

He opposed euthanasia, calling suffering "the discipline of humanity."

He told his priests that they might refuse communion to women wearing lipstick.[6]

He also condemned crooning: "No true American man would practice this base art. Of course, they aren't men.... If you will listen closely [to crooners' songs] you will discern the basest appeal to sex emotion in the young."[7]

He did not have an especially warm relationship with his auxiliary bishop Francis Spellman, who later was the Archbishop of New York. O'Connor once said, "Francis epitomizes what happens to a bookkeeper when you teach him how to read."[8]

He was also decidedly non-ecumenical. In 1908, he said, "The Puritan has passed. The Catholic remains." ([1]).


He was very influential with the growth of the Catholic Church. He was called by politicians "Number One" and enjoyed them frequently requesting his approval on issues. He was called a "battleship in full array."

Other affairs

Scandal over nephew

O'Connell's young nephew, Msgr. James P. O'Connell, who served as chancellor of the archdiocese, had secretly married in 1913 and was leading a double life. The marriage was discovered and brought to the attention of the Vatican by certain of O'Connell's clerical enemies who deeply resented his rise to power. The relationship between uncle and nephew appears to have been permanently severed when Msgr. O'Connell was removed from office and from his priestly duties in 1920. The results may have been beneficial for all concerned, as the marriage of James O'Connell endured until his death in 1948, survived only by his widow, who died in 1969. The historical record as to what the Cardinal knew and when he knew it is unclear.[9][10]

Fabricated autobiographical material

In 1915, O'Connell fabricated autobiographical material, an attempt which was successful until 1987. James M. O'Toole discovered that O'Connell's volume of published letters,[11] which O'Connell claimed to have written in the time period indicated by the volume's title, were, in fact, written over a short period and expressly for the purpose of publication.[12] O'Toole has also acknowledged that others who had researched and written on the subject of the letters in 1975 had found the dates on the letters to be "suspect".

Frances Sweeney

In the early 1940s when Frances Sweeney, editor of the Boston City Reporter, criticized O'Connell for his passivity in the face of rampant antisemitism in Boston, O'Connell summoned Sweeney to his office and threatened her with excommunication.[13][14][15]


O'Connell died from pneumonia in Brighton, aged 84. He was buried in a small chapel he had built on the grounds of St. John's Seminary. In 2007, the Archdiocese sold the property to Boston College and announced plans to relocate his remains to Saint Sebastian's School.[16]

On July 20, 2011 workers for the Catholic Cemetery Association of the Archdiocese of Boston began removing the Cardinal's remains from Boston College's campus and placed them in a temporarily unmarked grave at St. John's Seminary instead of Saint Sebastian's School. This was in accord with a deal struck between the descendants of the late Cardinal and the Archdiocese of Boston. A spokesman stated that "a proper marker" will be placed, with a full memorial ceremony, in the fall.[needs update][17]


His 36-year-long tenure was the longest in the history of the Archdiocese of Boston. He was the second-to-last surviving cardinal of Pope St. Pius X behind Gennaro Granito Pignatelli di Belmonte, and remains at present the third-longest serving American cardinal behind James Gibbons and William Wakefield Baum. In his book, Boston Catholics - A History of the Church and Its People, Thomas O'Connor, university historian at Boston College, O'Connell's alma mater, notes that during O'Connell's tenure as head of the Archdiocese of Boston, the number of women in religious life increased from 1567 to 5459; the number of parishes increased from 194 to 322; the number of churches increased from 248 to 375; the number of diocesan priests increased from 488 to 947; the archdiocese was operating 3 Catholic hospitals. At page 208 of Boston Catholics, O'Connor writes: "It was under O'Connell's influence too, that the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Boston assumed a conceptual solidarity and impressive visibility that it had never seen before and would never see again."

One of O'Connell's grandnephews, Paul G. Kirk, served briefly as U.S. Senator in 2009.[18]

In popular culture

In Henry Morton Robinson's best-selling 1950 historical novel, The Cardinal, the Archbishop of Boston in the exact time frame as O'Connell's term in office is named "Lawrence Cardinal Glennon". Robinson's physical descriptions of Glennon, his massive Diocesan building program, his arriving late for two Papal conclaves in Rome, while eventually making it in time for a third, his popular description as "Number One" and many other details of the Glennon character exactly correspond with O'Connell's career and personality. The "Cardinal" of the title, however, is a young priest who serves as Glennon's secretary, only to eventually rise to the rank of Cardinal himself.[citation needed]

Published works


In addition to his published volumes of letters, sermons and addresses, O'Connell's legacy includes a number of hymns, including:

  • Hymn to the Holy Cross
  • Hymn to the Holy Name
  • Prayer for a Perfect Life


  1. ^ a b c d e f Thornton, Francis. "William Cardinal O'Connell". Our American Princes.
  2. ^ a b c O'Toole, James M. (2003). "Number One". Boston College Magazine.
  3. ^ "To Name Three New Cardinals For America. Red Hat for Archbishops Farley and O'Connell and Papal Delegate Falconio". The New York Times. October 29, 1911. Retrieved 2008-12-23. The Pope will create a large number of Cardinals at the consistory to be held on Nov. 27. The Most Rev. John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York, and the Most Rev. William H. O'Connell, Archbishop of Boston, are among those who will receive the Red Hat. Mgr. Diomede Falconio, Apostolic Delegate at Washington, will also be elevated, according to the announcement made to-day.
  4. ^ "London Legman". Time magazine. 1939-09-18.
  5. ^ Wallis, Claudia (1980-10-27). "People, Oct. 27, 1980". Time magazine.
  6. ^ a b "Death of a Cardinal". Time magazine. 1944-05-01.
  7. ^ "People, Jan. 18, 1932". Time magazine. 1932-01-18.
  8. ^ "The Master Builder". Time magazine. 1967-12-08.
  9. ^ Thomas Maier (2004). The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings. Basic Books. p. 101.
  10. ^ Paula M. Kane (2001). Separatism and Subculture: Boston Catholicism: 1900-1920. UNC Press Books. p. 15.
  11. ^ William O'Connell. The letters of His Eminence William Cardinal O'Connell, Archbishop of Boston: vol. 1. From college days 1876 to Bishop of Portland 1901. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Riverside Press, 1915.)
  12. ^ James M. O'Toole. Militant and triumphant: William Henry O'Connell and Boston Catholicism, 1859-1944 (Thesis (Ph. D.), Boston College, 1987.)
  13. ^ Hentoff, Nat (2012). Boston Boy: Growing up with Jazz and Other Rebellious Passions. Paul Dry Books. p. 84.
  14. ^ McNamara, Eileen (March 12, 2000). "Now, Practice What You Preach". The Boston Globe. (Subscription required (help)).
  15. ^ Marty, Martin E. (1996). Modern American Religion, Volume 3: Under God, Indivisible, 1941-1960. University of Chicago Press. p. 236. ISBN 9780226508986.
  16. ^ Lockwood, Jim (2009-09-25). "Remains of Cardinal O'Connell could be relocated". Boston Pilot.
  17. ^ Arsenault, Mark (2011-07-28). "For cardinal, a new final resting place". Boston Globe.
  18. ^ Paulson, Michael (2009-09-24). "Family ties: Kirk is heir to Boston cardinal". Boston Globe.

Further reading

  • O'Connor, Thomas H. (1998). Boston Catholics. Northeastern University Press. ( ISBN 1-55553-359-0).
  • "Catholic Hierarchy". Retrieved 2005-10-02.
  • Peters, Walter H. The Life of Benedict XV. 1959. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company. Peters writes of the Vatican meeting of Pope Benedict XV and Cardinal O'Connell, over the scandal of his nephew's marriage.

External links

  • "The Puritan has passed" speech
  • William Henry O'Connell at Find a Grave

Episcopal succession

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
John Joseph Williams
Archbishop of Boston
Succeeded by
Richard Cushing
Preceded by
James Augustine Healy
Bishop of Portland, Maine
Succeeded by
Louis Sebastian Walsh
Academic offices
Preceded by
Denis J. O'Connell
Rector of the Pontifical North American College
Succeeded by
Thomas F. Kennedy
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