By Joe Lee
MADISON – When Father David O’Connor was ordained to the priesthood in his native Ireland in 1964, he volunteered to minister in the United States and Mississippi in particular. That wish was granted and then some, as O’Connor was assigned to St. Patrick Catholic Church in Meridian mere weeks after the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodwin in nearby Neshoba County.
His transition to a foreign and quite turbulent new work environment is one of many fascinating stories that fill the pages of A Priestly Pilgrimage: The Experiences of a Diocesan Priest in Times of Change and Challenge.
“It’s an autobiographical narrative told through the sub-stories of an evolving theology, ministry skills development, cultural transitions, and programs that were responsive to the pastoral needs of God’s people,” O’Connor said of the book. “It will take the reader from my childhood and formative years in Ireland through my fifty-five years in the priesthood, and places special interest on the impact of Vatican II, which changed the context and vision of the Catholic Church.”
Written in an engaging, conversational style, A Priestly Pilgrimage devotes chapters to O’Connor’s years in Meridian, Oxford, Greenwood, in Diocesan administration, and in Natchez (where he pastored for two different stretches before retiring there in 2019). Amid his Mississippi assignments he returned to Ireland for several years in the 1970s to help recruit Irish seminarians for the priesthood in this state, he served seven years in pastoral ministry in his home diocese of Limerick in the 1990s, and he served four years as development director for St. Joseph Catholic School in Madison just after St. Joe moved to its present location.
Through it all, O’Connor brought organizational skills, leadership, work ethic, compassion, and a gentle good humor to all around him. He reached across racial and interfaith lines to make countless friends and important connections all over Mississippi, and to this day he is a regular at a coffee shop in Natchez where he enjoys discussing current events and sports with his buddies.
Charles Nolan, with whom O’Connor became acquainted while pastoring in Natchez in the mid-1980s, said of A Priestly Pilgrimage, “(It’s) the story of an Irish farm boy who grew up and prepared for the priesthood in pre-Vatican II Ireland, began ministry in a pre-integration Mississippi parish, met the challenges of a rapid changing Mississippi society and church with an open, enquiring mind, developed a challenging and now often-accepted style of leadership, responded to very diverse ministry appointments and challenges, fortunately documented well his years in ministry, and at retirement, wished to continue ministry by sharing the journey and some of the wisdom accumulated along the way.”
A Priestly Pilgrimage is published by Ronnoco Press and will be available in paperback in July. Find Father O’Connor on Facebook by searching David O’Connor, and watch for his book talks at weekend Masses in Natchez, Greenwood, Meridian and Oxford in the coming months. Copies will be on sale in the offices of St. Mary Basilica, Assumption Church and Holy Family in Natchez, and at Locus Benedictus of Greenwood. To reach Father O’Connor directly, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.