By Pablo Kay
LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop David G. O’Connell, a native of Ireland who spent most of his four decades as a priest ministering in LA’s inner city, was shot and killed Feb. 18 in his Hacienda Heights home, a neighborhood east of LA.
His death is being investigated as a homicide, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department confirmed to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles early Feb. 19.
“We learned early this morning from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office that they have determined that the death of Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell yesterday was a homicide,” Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles said in a statement released Feb. 19. “We are deeply disturbed and saddened by this news.”
In a Feb. 19 news release, the Sheriff’s department said that deputies had responded to a medical emergency on the 1500 block of Janlu Avenue in Hacienda Heights and found the bishop suffering from a gunshot wound.
According to the Sheriff’s release, “Paramedics arrived and pronounced him dead at the scene.”
It added Bishop O’Connell’s death is being handled as a murder investigation, and encouraged anyone with information about the incident to contact the department’s homicide bureau at (323) 890-5500.
Archbishop Gomez also gave the update to parishioners gathered for Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels Feb. 19.
“We continue to pray for Bishop Dave, and for his family in Ireland, and we pray for law enforcement officials as they continue their investigation into this terrible crime,” he added.
In his homily, Archbishop Gomez pointed out that he and Bishop O’Connell had just celebrated the annual Mass for the Sick together a week earlier on Feb. 11.
“We had a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary on that side of the sanctuary,” explained Archbishop Gomez. “So as he was starting the homily he went over there and prayed to the Blessed Mother. And then he turned around and said at the beginning of the homily: ‘She told me to tell you that she loves you.’
“That is who Bishop Dave was,” continued the archbishop. “He had a wonderful sense of humor and a beautiful devotion to Our Blessed Mother. We all miss him very much.”
In an earlier statement Feb. 18, Archbishop Gomez called the death of Bishop O’Connell a “shock” and said he had “no words to express my sadness.”
“Bishop Dave,” as he was known, was episcopal vicar for the archdiocese’s San Gabriel Pastoral Region since 2015, when Pope Francis named him an auxiliary bishop.
In his Feb. 18 statement, Archbishop Gomez said Bishop O’Connell will be remembered as “a man of deep prayer who had a great love for Our Blessed Mother.”
“He was a peacemaker with a heart for the poor and the immigrant, and he had a passion for building a community where the sanctity and dignity of every human life was honored and protected,” the archbishop said.
“He was also a good friend, and I will miss him greatly,” continued Archbishop Gomez, who asked for prayers for the bishop and his family in Ireland.
“May Our Lady of Guadalupe wrap him in the mantle of her love, and may the angels lead him into paradise, and may he rest in peace,” said the archbishop.
Bishop O’Connell’s death also drew messages of sympathy and mourning from his native Ireland, where he was known to visit family and friends regularly.
In a Feb. 19 statement, the bishop of Bishop O’Connell’s home diocese expressed “sympathies and prayerful support to the O’Connell family in Cork, to Archbishop José H. Gomez and the people, priests and religious of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.”
“The news of the tragic death of Bishop David O’Connell in Los Angeles has sent shockwaves across his native Diocese of Cork and Ross,” said Bishop Fintan Gavin of Cork and Ross.
“We will pray for Bishop David at Mass throughout the Diocese of Cork and Ross in the coming days asking the Lord to comfort his family, his colleagues and all the bereaved,” Bishop Gavin said. “Bishop David worked tirelessly for peace and harmony in communities; may he now rest in the peace of the Lord.”
Bishop O’Connell was originally from Brooklodge, Glanmire in County Cork, the largest county in Ireland.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna also confirmed the news of Bishop O’Connell’s murder, writing on Twitter Sunday morning that “My heart grieves after learning of the murder of Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell” and that his department “is committed to arresting those responsible for this horrible crime.”
Born in County Cork, Ireland, in 1953, Bishop O’Connell studied for the priesthood at the former All Hallows College in Dublin and was ordained to serve in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1979. After ordination, he served as associate pastor in several parishes and as pastor at St. Frances X. Cabrini, Ascension, St. Eugene and St. Michael’s parishes — all in south Los Angeles.
There, Bishop O’Connell ministered to a community afflicted by gang violence, poverty, broken families, as well as tensions between locals and members of Los Angeles Police Department and the LA Sheriff’s Department that eventually boiled over during the LA riots in 1992 that followed the beating of Rodney King by police officers.
The riots broke out during then-Father O’Connell’s first tour at St. Frances X. Cabrini (1988-98). Bishop O’Connell would later tell how he was in Washington, testifying before a panel on Capitol Hill about violence in urban America, when the riots started. He came home days later to find widespread destruction in much of his parish’s territory.
Apart from aiding neighborhood recovery efforts, Father O’Connell pushed to restore trust between the inner-city residents and law enforcement. He and other local faith leaders helped organize meetings with police officers in people’s homes and provide opportunities for dialogue and reconciliation.
As a pastor, Father O’Connell also saw firsthand the effect of broken families on the community. That inspired him to organize retreats for men — usually in the mountains — focusing on how to be good fathers and husbands, something he saw as key to the health of a community.
During his time as auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles, evangelization, pastoral care for immigrants and ensuring the future of his region’s Catholic schools were all top priorities for Bishop O’Connell.
He was the chairman of the interdiocesan Southern California Immigration Task Force, helping coordinate the local church’s response to the influx of migrants from Central America in recent years and navigating the challenges presented by changing immigration policies.
Last September, Bishop O’Connell was recognized for his tireless service to the community and the church in Los Angeles with the prestigious Evangelii Gaudium Award from St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo.
At the national level, Bishop O’Connell was serving as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
But despite his long list of accolades and accomplishments, Bishop O’Connell was known as a low-key priest with a down-to-earth demeanor who spoke the love of Jesus with his Irish brogue. Those who knew him testify that he seemed most at ease with the people he spent all those years with in south L.A.
“It’s been the great joy of my life to be the pastor of these people, especially the ones who are suffering or in need or facing difficulty,” Bishop O’Connell said after being named a bishop in 2015. “And it’s been a great privilege, a great blessing to be given these parishes all these years, to be pastor all these years. The people have touched my heart the way they are sincere.”
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Pablo Kay is editor of Angelus News, publication of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. OSV News staff contributed to this report.