Mary O’Connor Ward is the sister of the late John Cardinal O’Connor, who served as New York’s eighth Archbishop from 1984 to 2000. She lives outside of Philadelphia and recently celebrated her 87th birthday.
It was a surprise I never expected: my mother, the mother of a former Cardinal Archbishop of New York, was born Jewish. My heart swelled as I read the words written more than 100 years ago by a simple parish priest on the pages of a worn church record book. The lines of script documenting my parents marriage union read, “Dorothy Gumple (my mother) was converted from Judaism and baptized in April 1908.” I was stunned, breathless at the thought, and soon filled with joy as I came to know our family story in a completely new way. Our dear mother was Jewish.
The journey that led to this astonishing discovery began months earlier when I decided to make a family tree. In my research, I stumbled across records that showed my maternal grandparents were buried in a Jewish cemetery. How could this be? How did I go through life not knowing this? I do not know why my mother never shared this with us, although it fits her character. She was a humble, discreet, and gracious woman who rarely spoke of herself. She was also one of the most devout Catholics I have ever known. I marvel at the work of grace in her soul that led her to the Catholic Church. She did not marry my father, Thomas O’Connor, for nearly two years after her baptism. Her path to the Catholic Church was a secret of her heart—held now in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Church where she was baptized.
Upon my discovery, my thoughts quickly turned to my brother, and his life as the Archbishop of New York came into focus. I am convinced that my brother did not know my mother was Jewish either. We knew she was a convert, and presumed that she had converted from another Christian religion. Her journey of faith was simply never mentioned or spoken of in our family. My eyes fill with tears and I smile as I think of how my brother would have cherished the thought. He did not know our mother was Jewish, yet there is knowledge deeper than the intellect. Indeed, “the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” Our hearts tend to linger and gaze upon that which we most cherish and esteem. In his heart and in his soul, my brother had a deep and profound love for the Jewish people. He had a loyalty and a fidelity to them that went far beyond natural human respect. He cherished their friendships and thought of them as his dear older spiritual brothers. One rabbi said, “He was not only your good shepherd, he was our good shepherd too.” The late Mayor Ed Koch said, “I loved John Cardinal O’Connor as I did my own flesh and blood brother.”
My brother revered the Jewish people for their sublime dignity as God’s chosen race. It was the Jewish people who taught mankind what it means to know and trust God, and to be His beloved. He would have considered it the greatest honor to be united with ties of blood to the race that bore our Savior Jesus Christ and His Holy Mother. I see now that my brother’s entire life was shaped by the faith of Jewish people. Whenever he spoke of the Holocaust he did so with tears in his heart. As a priest, during a trip to the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, he was pierced to the core. He vowed that he would do whatever he could, until his dying breath, to promote the sacredness of every human life.
He said that the men and women who died at Dachau shaped his adult life. His childhood was shaped by a woman who did not die at Dachau, but could have, had the circumstances of her birth been different. She shaped his heart and warmed his love. She taught him the faith and how to pray to God. He wrote to her before his ordination to the priesthood, “To my Mother, in appreciation of the fact that if her son ever becomes (a) good priest…the credit and the reward will be hers.”
I marvel at God’s mysterious ways. He used my brother, this son of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, to be in the instrument that built so many bridges between the Jewish and Catholic Communities. Rabbi James Rudin called him the chief architect of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the state of Israel and the Holy See (the Vatican) that diplomatically linked the Eternal City with the Holy City of Jerusalem.
My brother recognized that God’s covenant with the Jewish people has an enduring meaning in the plan of salvation. Their very existence teaches us of God’s fidelity. The Second Vatican Council says that Church discovers her bond with Judaism by searching into her own mystery. These words have taken on great meaning for me as I think of the mysterious work of grace in my brother’s life. I ponder the words of Pope John Paul II who said, “The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion.” My brother lived this to the point of calling himself a spiritual Semite.
There is indeed a great mystery here. I do not know what inspired my mother to become Catholic. Yet, I am certain that her Jewish roots were mysteriously planted in my heart and in my brother’s heart. The woman my brother loved most in this world was once a simple Jewish girl, a daughter of Abraham, a daughter of grace. He never knew this, but it undoubtedly formed his heart.
He said that the men and women who died at Dachau shaped his adult life. His childhood was shaped by a woman who did not die at Dachau, but could have, had the circumstances of her birth been different.