From the Archives
By Mary Woodward
JACKSON – Let us pray for Bishop David O’Connell, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who was murdered this past weekend. Let us also pray for his family in Ireland.
Having served in the diocesan chancery for 30 years and in particular having served the Office of Bishop under Bishops William Houck, Joseph Latino and Joseph Kopacz, and having assisted or been mentored by bishops across the region and world, this is poignantly disturbing. As we enter the great Lenten season, it is a sharp reminder of the fragility of life and the violence that dwells in the hearts of many.
This week I thought I would replay a difficult adventure of Bishop Thomas Heslin, relayed by Bishop John Gunn in his diary. It is an account of an accident that more than likely led to Bishop Heslin’s death a few months after it occurred. This week is the anniversary of Bishop Heslin’s death (Feb. 22, 1911) and Bishop Gunn’s death (Feb. 19, 1924).
Here is a condensed version of the infamous mule cart ride:
“Visit to Montpelier. This is a little mission chapel about 13 miles from West Point, without a railroad and with the poorest roads imaginable. On the way out from West Point to Montpelier I heard a story about Bishop Heslin which is worth recording.
“The good Bishop was, like myself, going out to the little chapel to give Confirmation. The best pair of mules in the neighborhood were commandeered to bring the Bishop out. The Bishop’s carriage was a spring wagon and a plank put over the sideboards formed the cushions for the driver and the Bishop.
“The roads were of that peculiar type known in Mississippi as ‘corduroy’ roads. Branches of trees, stumps, logs, etc. are imbedded in the mud roads during the Winter, In the Spring these are covered with dirt and there is a good road until the first rain comes. Then the dirt is washed up and the stumps are very much in evidence, especially when the mules get into a trot.
“It seems that on the past visit of Bishop Heslin, the driver talked all he knew about cotton, lumber, and the country and talked so much that the mules fell asleep. It is thought that Bishop Heslin – if he was not asleep, was at least nodding – and at the moment the driver woke up and commenced to whip the mules into some kind of activity.
“The sudden start caught the Bishop unprepared and he made a double somersault over the spring wagon and fell on the road. The driver was so busy with the mules that he forgot the Bishop and did not know of the mishap for nearly half a mile.
“Then there was the difficulty of turning the pair of mules on the road and a convenient turning spot had to be reached. This delayed the recovery of the Bishop for a considerable time and when the mule driver and his mules found the Bishop – Bishop Heslin was in a dead faint.
“The good Bishop was a big man and a heavy man, and the mule driver was lean and lanky and there was no help in sight or available. There was nothing to do only to take the sideboards from the wagon and form an inclined plane and roll the Bishop up the plane and make him comfortable in the wagon. “He recovered consciousness before he reached West Point.
“It is said that the Bishop never really recovered from the shock and the injury sustained by this fall. [The event occurred in late 1910 and Bishop Heslin died the following February.]
“The driver who brought me out to Montpelier was the same one who had brought Bishop Heslin and he gave me the story as written.”
This account is a reminder of difficult days of travel and ministry for bishops in our diocese prior to paved roads, 70 mph speed limits and Siri’s step by step directions.
So, as we move into these forty days of Lent 2023, let us pray for our bishops and for the people of Los Angeles whom Bishop O’Connell served. Let us strive to build peace in our hearts and the hearts of our communities. We also must work hard at examining the violence within us no matter how big or small and work to quell it through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Find a big tree to pray under as a reminder of the outstretched arms of the Cross on which the Savior of the world, our ultimate shepherd, opened His arms and offered His life for us. Have a blessed Lenten journey.
(Mary Woodward is Chancellor and Archivist for the Diocese of Jackson.)