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Taking His Vows to Heart

Working in the shadow of abuse scandals, one longtime priest presses on with untiring service to God and community.


The 23rd anniversary of the Rev. Msgr. David O'Connell's ordination would be marked by a partial solar eclipse. But when the alarm went off at 5:30 that Monday morning, the priest was unaware of either event.

Thudding down the carpeted stairs in the rectory of St. Frances Xavier Catholic Church in South-Central Los Angeles, O'Connell was thinking about his dog.

For years he had wanted a dog but had feared, he says, "that a priest's dog would die of loneliness." Then one day, a big black dog, mostly chow with some sort of shepherd mixed in, wandered onto the asphalt lot that separates the rectory from the church's school.

All night the dog sat behind the rectory, wailing like a banshee--"Wailinlikeabanshee," O'Connell says again as he tells the story, running the words into an onomatopoeic train as only a native of Ireland can. So finally he broke down and let the dog in. "If you want to join the priesthood," man told beast, "it's all right with me."

That was four years ago and since then the priest has begun his morning by walking his dog at dawn. It is the high point of the dog's day and one of the constant satisfactions of the man's.

O'Connell faces a working day that can last 16 hours in a place where the problems seem unending. At the same time, the ideal image of the priesthood--a vocation to provide spiritual guidance, strength, succor--has been eclipsed by scandal just as the sun this day will be eclipsed by the moon.

The list of priests who have abused children is horrifyingly long; the list of those who abetted them longer. Yet neither comes close in number to the majority of this country's 46,000 Catholic priests who strive daily to fulfill their vows--men who spend days and nights aiding the poor, the ailing, the criminal, the troubled, even as yet another of their own is revealed to have abused those entrusted to his care.

Like many other priests, O'Connell, who is 48, is appalled and angered by the continual revelations of pathology and corruption, and by what has seemed like a continuing attempt by the church to defend the indefensible. But he remains a visible symbol of that church; every morning he puts on the black shirt and white Roman collar because it is the uniform of the work he still believes in--serving God and his people.

For 14 years, O'Connell has been pastor at St. Frances Cabrini, and just recently he also became pastor of nearby Ascension. This means overseeing, not only two congregations of roughly 4,000 families each, but also two schools that between them serve about 500 pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade. The parishes are less than a mile apart, but there is a language and racial division--Cabrini is mostly African American, Ascension primarily Spanish-speaking Latino.

Both neighborhoods are very poor and bogged down by issues of survival, and so are the duties of their priest. O'Connell spends a lot of time encouraging his parishioners to speak up for themselves--to fight for new stop signs and safer playgrounds, to demand that politicians keep their promises.

What O'Connell considers his failures are starkly obvious and irrevocable. Recently, in the space of one week, he said three funeral Masses for victims of gang-related shootings.

"The kids are organized," he says. "The adults are not. We have to unite to show them a different way."

But O'Connell is a priest, not a social worker. He absolutely believes that the answers to human failings can be found in the Gospel, that, sought or unsought, God is with us. And so on this Monday morning, 23 years after he took his vows at All Hallow's Seminary in Dublin, the priest returns from his walk, feeds himself and his dog and spends an hour in the pale chilly silence of the church, alone with his thoughts and his God.

Then, under an overcast sky, he gets into his Saturn station wagon and heads down Imperial Highway to 8 a.m. Mass at Ascension Church.

Ascension is not a beautiful church. There are bars over the stained-glass windows, the mosaic depicting the Ascension is faded and pocked. It stands in the crook of the Century and Harbor freeways, where a soaring transition road turns north, away from the airport and toward downtown. The surrounding blocks are drab and grim, full of small motels and impound lots.

But the houses across from the school and rectory are bright with grass and roses, and inside the small chapel where morning Mass is said, the singing masks every other noise. Twenty or so people, most of them women, have gathered amid the wooden chairs, several with children in tow.

When saying Mass here, O'Connell is often the only non-Latino in the room, but his Spanish is as quick and melodic as his parishioners'.

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