Msgr. Richard O’Donnell, oldest priest, passes away
May 6, 2016

Monsignor Richard O’Donnell. (Photo Courtesy of Our Lady of Good Counsel)

Monsignor Richard O’Donnell. (Photo Courtesy of Our Lady of Good Counsel)

Despite being 105 years old, Msgr. Richard O’Donnell never quite retired—either as Chicago’s oldest active parish priest or as the Chicago White Sox’s number one fan, longtime friend and onetime assistant Fr. Jim Hyland told a packed church.

Among the tributes adorning one of the altars at his home parish, Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, 3528 S. Hermitage Ave., during Msgr. O’Donnell’s April 16 funeral was a White Sox-themed floral arrangement sent by the ball club.

“He was a dedicated fan who truly had seen it all as a White Sox fan, including not one, but two World Series wins,” said Christine O’Reilly, the club’s community relations vice president.

Twice—in 2001 to mark the South Siders’ centennial and again in 2009—Msgr. O’Donnell threw out the season’s first ball, Fr. Hyland said during his homily. Before his first time, “he was out practicing in the weeks leading up to the game,” Fr. Hyland said. “He’d go out and throw the ball around a little bit in the parking lot to get his arm in shape.”

“He could throw a mean ball, even when it didn’t quite make it to the plate,” Deacon Dismas Fernandez recalled after the Mass. “He was also the holiest person I ever knew.”

“He always had a rosary in his hand,” added Fernandez, a retired accountant and former Gazette associate editor. “And until he was no longer able to attend Mass, he was always there assisting—even while sitting on a stool at the altar when he could no longer stand.

“He was a people person, one of those remarkable people who could lighten anyone’s day,” Fernandez said, adding that Msgr.

O’Donnell never missed the Tuesday night novenas and often would play bingo after the services.

Shared happiness
“The one thing he was about was happiness,” Fernandez said. “He had it, and he shared it with everyone. The most important thing being with him taught me is that God is not a grouch.” Fernandez’s job in recent years included taking care of Msgr.

O’Donnell, often driving him wherever he needed to be.

“Usually when we got in the car, he wanted to put his hand on the steering wheel, just so he could have the feeling of driving,” Fernandez said.

The Bridgeport-born-and raised Msgr. O’Donnell attended St. Bridget and St. Basil schools, then went on to Quigley Seminary and St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary.

“I can’t remember any particular moment when I decided to go on to become a priest,” he told the Gazette two years ago. “It was a gradual thing. Maybe it had something to do with Sister Mary Ella favoring the boys who were going to Quigley. So I went with them.”

After his 1935 ordination, Fr. O’Donnell went on to serve six cardinals at five parishes, including Good Counsel, which was the product of a merger between St. Peter and Paul and St. Maurice parishes.

Eight decades
During his more than eight decades in the priesthood, Msgr. O’Donnell served at St. Gabriel, Our Lady of Peace, St. Bernadette in Evergreen Park, and St. Ita on the North Side.

In 1963, he was posted to Good Counsel. Even after his “retirement” in 1981, he continued saying Mass and hearing confessions into the current decade. His advice to both priests and parishioners started with one simple rule: pray a lot.

“Do what Cardinal [Joseph] Bernardin did,” Msgr. O’Donnell said. “He was busy, too. So he got up an hour early to get his prayers in. It’s a support. Because you’re not all alone. You have God to help you.”

And remember to stop and enjoy life, he often added. “He just loved life,” Fernandez agreed.
In the end, most agreed, the lifelong Sox fan finally got where he was going—safe at home.

— Patrick Butler