History Project – Memories of Father Tom

Today’s 175th Jubilee History Project article by Andrea Thomas is one of several pieces that share memories of our iconic pastor Father Tom O’Connor. Father Tom was a champion of the poor and disadvantaged, and he dedicated his priesthood to justice and shared responsibility in the parish. He died on Saint Patrick’s Day, 2004.

Father Thomas Patrick O’Connor, July 29,1929-March 17, 2004

When I joined St. Mary’s during Lent, 1977, I really didn’t know what I was getting into, or what kind of pastor and friend, Father Tom O’Connor would be.

We old-timers have many stories and memories from his 34 years as pastor. But one of my favorites is my first Easter at St. Mary’s when I saw this larger-than-life priest hold a soup pot in one hand and use a metal ladle in the other to keep time with the restored “Alleluia.” And even now, many years later, I can still see the powerful image of an older Father Tom, arthritic knees and all, kneeling on the slate chancel steps to wash the feet of catechumens on Holy Thursday.

Father Tom loved every aspect of our liturgies and was eager to include new ways to add to our celebrations. He often incorporated different ethnic traditions into our parish spiritual life—the blessing of Easter foods on Holy Saturday, the special tall Easter bread that was supposed to be for the children too young to receive the Eucharist but which was enjoyed by everyone; the Hesychast Prayer cards he distributed so that we could learn to pray unceasingly, and, of course, the Irish coffee and soda bread he served after the liturgy on St. Patrick’s Day.

Father Tom grew up in the Gary-Hammond “region,” and used to joke that at least one of the nuns who taught him was sure he would end up in jail. Trained and ordained pre-Vatican II, he was blessed with an innovative spirit that celebrated diversity and encouraged others to use their gifts for the greater good. He was dedicated to the concept of shared responsibility in the parish, knowing that one priest could not possibly meet the needs of an entire parish alone. When he died on St. Patrick’s Day, 2004, several of the media reported, “St. Mary’s has lost its pastor, many have lost a friend, and Fort Wayne has lost its conscience.”

The paragraphs that follow are edited from the March 13, 2005 dedication of the Father Tom Memorial Wall in our gathering area. Much of it deals with his impact and influence in the parish, and the challenge of faith that he bestowed on us.

Father Tom was decidedly uncomfortable with fuss and bother on his behalf, and he had little patience with those of us who thought it was pretty neat that various organizations such as the National Council of Churches, The Catholic Extension Society, the local legal community, and Rotary International, among many others, bestowed honors and accolades on him from time to time.

But now, as we approach the anniversary of his death, we look to our own needs, not his.

He, after all, is fine. We are the ones who need this kind of thing, these rituals of remembrance, and we are grateful to Father Phil for suggesting this memorial wall. It is not just appropriate, but probably necessary. These prayers and rituals are the things that comfort us as we even now still mourn his passing, and reflect on his unique place in our lives, in this parish, and in the wider community.

The plaques and awards that have been assembled on this wall give testimony to Father Tom’s witness of faith in action.

And it is all of us– the people of God in this parish– who give testimony to his priesthood.

We are the “things,” that gave his service to God meaning, and we bear the responsibility of sustaining his memory through the way we witness to our shared faith.

The plaques and awards will eventually come down, tucked away in a closet, and someone years from now will take the portrait apart, wondering if the frame can be recycled.

These are earthly things, and, true to our history, they will pass away. But the spirit that lived in Fr. Tom O’Connor, the demands he made of us, his joyful celebration of the sacraments, his intensity, and the imagination that he shared with each of us– these will live on in our lives, and in turn, in the lives of those we touch.

The way we live and the way we share our faith are the real memorials, the living legacy of Thomas Patrick O’Connor, priest, pastor, counselor, friend, Servant of God.

The way we welcome the stranger in our midst; the way we respond in the face of prejudice and discrimination; the way we support those whose horizons can be broadened through education, the arts, and our love; the work that we do to comfort the hungry, the sick and the dying; the way we rejoice when new members join the faith family; the way we confront the arrogance of power and the greed that perpetuate violence both at home and around the globe, and the way we pray—these are the real ways we honor his memory.

One sentence in the Old Testament book of Micah sums up the legal, ethical, and spiritual requirements of faith: “…and what does the Lord require of you,” the prophet asks, “ but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

The awards and plaques are signs of Father Tom’s work in this world, ways in which he showed how to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

And we, the symbols of his pastorate, must now show others, not with glum faces and pious pronouncements, but with that wild Irishman’s gladsome heart and utter joy. As the early 20th century activist Emma Goldman once said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

So come Good Friends, let the dance go on.

Andrea S. Thomas
January 2023