From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has
encouraged priests and bishops to be servant leaders, shepherds who smell like
their sheep. Hundreds of years before him, St. Francis of Assisi believed the
friars should not be seen as better than the laity, but as their brothers in
Throughout his life, Father John O’Connor, a Franciscan friar and
the parochial administrator of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Triangle, has
tried to take those messages to heart. “We are as you are,” he told young
adults at Theology on Tap in Woodbridge Nov. 28. This priority has led him to embrace
a wide range of life experiences, from joining a fire department to partnering
with high-powered real estate moguls.
Father O’Connor was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but was raised in
Queens and then lived upstate. He received his undergraduate degree from
Catholic University in Washington and made his profession of solemn vows in
1971. Two years later, he was ordained a priest and assigned to St. Bonaventure
University in Allegany, N.Y.
Father O’Connor has served the church in many pastoral roles. He
was director of Holy Name College seminary and relocated the school from
Washington to its current location in Silver Spring, Md. He was chaplain of
Trinity University in Washington and pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church
from 1991 to 2003. After that, he served as provincial of Holy Name Province — the group of friars minor on the East Coast. At
St. Bonaventure, he was the director of campus ministry, pastor of the
university parish and adjunct professor of theology.
While there, he was asked to be chaplain of the local fire
department, and also decided to join the volunteers. “If I’m going to do this,
I’m going to do this,” he told them.
The first call he got was for a restaurant right across the
street from the university. It was a February night with temperatures at 5
below zero. When he put on his equipment and arrived at the scene, smoke was
billowing out of the eaves. As they began to make entry, the second floor
exploded, sending flaming debris everywhere. One of his companions told him,
“I’ve been a firefighter for 28 years; this is the closest I’ve come to getting
Years later in Triangle, Father O’Connor joined the Prince
William County Department of Fire and Rescue as a chaplain. Shortly afterward,
a courier for the department suffered a heart attack while driving. He regained
a pulse but showed no other signs of life, said Chief Kevin McGee, who also
came to the Theology on Tap.
For days, Father O’Connor prayed in the man’s hospital room. The
doctors believed there was no brain activity and that he should be taken off life
support, but his wife decided to give it one more day. The next day, he showed
signs of life and later made a full recovery. “We attribute it to a miracle,”
said McGee. Today, Father O’Connor is the head of all chaplains for the
Before he was provincial, Father O’Connor served as director of
real estate and finance for the Holy Name Province. At that time, the
Franciscans owned several properties in Manhattan and, after assessing the
feasibility, he decided to build a skyscraper to house the friary.
Father O’Connor knew nothing about construction, tax law or what
it took to build in New York City. He relied on experts to teach him, and got
by with the help of lawyers and the other friars. The first obstacle was
finding a partner. He was told it could be difficult, because partners didn’t
like novice partners or ethical ones. “What makes you think we’re ethical?”
joked another friar.
Father O’Connor spent four and half years in conference rooms
just to negotiate the construction. He quickly learned that it was a cutthroat
industry. “(We’d have) meetings with our so-called partners, and our lawyers
and our partners’ lawyers would be screaming at each other,” he said.
After the meeting, “My team would say, ‘Good meeting, good
meeting.’ I’d say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”
Even before the deal was signed, the Franciscans poured millions
of dollars into the building, knowing that if they didn’t, the impending
recession could halt progress altogether. The night before they closed the
deal, their lawyer worried it might not go through. When Father O’Connor
arrived at the hotel the next morning, $1 million had slipped through the
cracks, and they had to negotiate who would pay for it. Just before noon, their
partners called the deal off.
Though Father O’Connor was worried about how he would explain
this to the Franciscans, his lawyer assured him they were bluffing. Sure
enough, they called back 40 minutes later and the complicated deal was back on.
“Four hundred documents over two days had to be signed,” said Father
O’Connor. “In many ways, it was a great experience, but it took about two years
off my life,” he joked. Now, the Franciscans share the 63-floor building with
apartments and the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge, where patients can stay
rent-free while receiving treatment at nearby hospitals.
Of all his adventures, Father O’Connor loves to recount the time
he landed on (and took off from) an aircraft carrier. While at Trinity
University, he met a retired fighter pilot who said he could get Father
O’Connor on a VIP list for a flight. That December, he drove down to Norfolk, was
strapped into a twin engine aircraft and set off for the ocean.
The next day a “wicked storm” arose, making it impossible for
Father O’Connor and the other guests to leave the ship, he said. Waves were
breaking over the bow and he could see fishing boats in the distance going up
one side of the giant waves and then crashing down the other. While one sailor
reassuringly told him not to worry, another tapped him on the shoulder and
said, “Father, this is the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
Eventually, the storm calmed down and he was able to leave the
ship as usual — by the plane being
“(The plane) goes from 0 to 160 miles per hour in four seconds,”
he said. “That part didn't bother me. When you go off the deck, you dip (first
and that was scary,)” he said.
For the past 25 years, a painting of a boat docked in the harbor
has hung in his room. The piece was painted and given to him by a woman dying
of cancer, whom he helped bring into the church during the last few weeks of
her life. The painting’s idyllic scene reminds Father O’Connor that true
greatness comes not from accomplishing heroic or prestigious feats but by doing
the work of God.
“The best thing we can do is to give a person the gift of life,
to help her see the goodness in herself,” he said.