Parish trustee remembers the late Msgr. Robert W. O’Connor

Photo Caption: Msgr. O’Connor (pictured) always put parishioners’ needs ahead of his own, writes Curtis Theyse in this memorial tribute to the longtime pastor of parishes in Lewistown and St. David.

By: By Curtis W. Theyse

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following remembrance of Msgr. Robert W. O’Connor was sent to The Catholic Post on Sept. 11 by Curtis W. Theyse, a trustee at St. Michael Parish in St. David. Msgr. O’Connor, who was pastor of the faith communities in St. David and Lewistown for more than five decades, died Sept. 10, 2015 in Canton. His obituary is found here.

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For many of us at St. Michael’s and St. Mary’s, Msgr. O’Connor was not only our beloved priest but also a family member. He served our parishes for nearly 60 years and jokingly said he felt like a great-grandparent as he watched the children of the children of the children of couples that he married at our parishes grow up and become adults. Monsignor was always there for us at those most important times of our lives: Baptism, first Holy Communion, Marriage, and Funerals.

Over the years, Msgr. O’Connor made countless visits to local hospitals and nursing homes to visit those who were sick or alone. He had a special place in his heart for the sick and homebound that started in his early childhood, in his own family. For his older brother Jackie was stricken with bacterial meningitis as a baby which caused him to suffer serious brain damage. Jackie was unable to talk or function for his entire life, which lasted 31 years. Msgr. O’Connor often spoke of his parents, Lillian and Richard, and the sacrifices they made to provide a loving and caring home for him and Jackie.

The O’Connor family endured much physical suffering over the years, including enduring the Depression years, but they never lost their faith in God. Monsignor said, “Not a day went by when a rosary was not said in our house and Mom and Dad always made sure that God was placed at the center of our family.” When asked what influenced him into the priesthood, Msgr. O’Connor would always credit the strong faith practiced by his parents, along with the physical suffering of his brother.

From a personal perspective, there are a lifetime of memories that involve Msgr O’Connor, too many to mention in one article. But, I would like to share a couple of them.

It was the summer of 1982. I was a sophomore in college on summer break. Monsignor called the house and asked if I would be willing to stay at the rectory at St. Mary’s in Lewistown while he went on a one-week vacation to the Georgia Isles. It was the first vacation he had taken in several years and as it would turn out it would be his last. He asked if I would stay at the rectory during the night and monitor phone calls for emergencies. He left a phone number where I could reach him.

I said “Yes” and the week began. It was the fourth day into the week and everything was fine. Then during the night around 1 a.m. the phone rang at the rectory. It was Graham Hospital in Canton. A parishioner had passed away and the family was trying to get in touch with Msgr. O’Connor as they wanted him to celebrate the funeral. I took the information down and called Monsignor that very morning.

Sure enough, Msgr. O’Connor answered the phone and I told him what happened. Without hesitation, he said he would look for the earliest flight back to Peoria and he was back in Lewistown later that same evening. His planned seven-day vacation had ended at four days. But that was Msgr. O’Connor. He always put his parishioners ahead of himself.

As it turned out, that was his last vacation. From 1982 on, Monsignor talked about trying to get away for a short vacation, but he never did. He was always worried that it would be difficult to find a replacement priest for our parishes while he was away on vacation due to the shortage of priests. He did not want to burden others. And, he did not want to leave his parishioners without an opportunity to attend Mass.

A year later, again during my summer break, Msgr. O’Connor called the house. This time a parishioner had been seriously injured in an automobile accident and was in the intensive care unit at University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City. Father asked if I would be willing to ride with him to Iowa City. He wanted to be there for the parishioner and his family. I said “Yes” and off to Iowa City we went. I will always remember the tears of joy when the family saw Msgr. O’Connor walk into that hospital. He met and visited with the family and said a prayer for the parishioner over his bed in the ICU. The parishioner did survive the accident and left the hospital a few weeks later.

On a more personal note, in April 2012, my mother passed away. Msgr. O’Connor had married my mother and father at St. Michael’s in October 1960. At this time, Monsignor was retired from the priesthood and was living in his apartment in Lewistown. His health was failing. Despite this, he somehow found the strength to come to Mom’s visitation and he knelt at her casket and said a prayer for her. This time, it was me who was shedding a tear of joy. I could only think of Mom and how joyful she must have felt for Monsignor to remember her despite all his sufferings. Again, that was Msgr. O’Connor, always putting his parishioners ahead of himself.

In conclusion, Msgr. O’Connor truly loved all his parishioners at both St. Michael’s and St. Mary’s. He always referred to his parishioners as his “family.”

Later in his priesthood, Msgr. O’Connor’s health began to fade. Despite this, he continued on. He was always worried about his parishes and how they would continue on after his retirement, given the shortage of priests, and he made sure to pray for vocations at every Mass at both of his parishes. Monsignor continued his priesthood well past his retirement age, sacrificing personal vacations, to serve God and his parishes.

He had the utmost respect for other priests in the diocese and he always told the story about when Bishop Jenky called him to the Chancery in Peoria one day. At the time, Monsignor was past his retirement age and he thought, “This is it” — only to find out that Bishop Jenky had actually called him to present him with the title of “Monsignor.” What a joyous and well-earned recognition for Monsignor, a day he always remembered.

Those of us at St. Michael’s and St. Mary’s were truly blessed to have been served by Msgr. O’Connor for so many years. What a wonderful and faithful priest he was. At his farewell Mass at St. Michael’s on Oct. 30, 2010, Monsignor closed his homily with the following words: “Let us pray for each other and you will always be in my prayers. May God Bless you always.”

Thank you, Msgr. O’Connor, for all that you have done for us. We will miss you dearly and you will always remain in our prayers as well. Thank you for a job well done. May God bless you, and rest in peace.

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