Father Joe O'Donnell

Father Joe O'Donnell

CINCINNATI (Aug. 26, 2009)—Father Joseph O'Donnell, a Glenmary Home Missioner for 63 years, died Aug. 25, 2009, at Mercy Franciscan Terrace, a local nursing facility. A native of Chicago and a son of St. Lucy Church, Father O'Donnell spent his years as a home missioner serving as a pastor in Kentucky, as a professor at the Glenmary seminary, as Glenmary's secretary-general and local superior and as a national leader in Catholic-Baptist dialogue and ecumenism.

Father O'Donnell decided to join Glenmary in 1944 while attending St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill. Upon transferring to the home mission society, he continued his education at Mount St. Mary Seminary in Cincinnati. He was ordained at St. Andrew Church, Chicago, in 1948, and took his Perpetual Oath as a Glenmary Home Missioner the following year.

Glenmary was founded in 1939, and Father O'Donnell was a link to the society's past as one of the early missioners to join the new society. His first long-term assignment was as associate pastor of Glenmary's first mission, St. John the Evangelist in Sunfish, Ky. That assignment was also the beginning of Father O'Donnell's long association with the Diocese of Owensboro. He went on to pastor Holy Redeemer mission in Beaver Dam, Ky., and its missions in Morgantown and Fordsville (1965-76, 1981-97)—and to serve as director of ecumenism for the diocese from the mid-1980s until his return to Glenmary Headquarters in 2003.

"Father O'Donnell had the heart of a missioner," said Father Dan Dorsey, president of Glenmary. "For a city boy from Chicago—and he never lost his Chicago accent!—he adapted readily to the missionary life and was a faithful ambassador of Christ. Perhaps his most significant impact came from his work in the ecumenical movement, both on a national and a local level. He had the demeanor and personality to make friends and break down barriers, no matter how difficult."

Father O'Donnell earned a licentiate in sacred theology from Catholic University in 1953. For the next 11 years, he taught at Glenmary's seminary and served in Glenmary leadership and as director of promotions. During summer breaks from teaching, Father O'Donnell and a number of seminarians spent time traveling through the South and Appalachia, tent-preaching in areas where the Catholic Church was not present or familiar. These gatherings, in the style of tent revivals, were held in small towns. The evenings included preaching and question-and-answer sessions to help local people better understand Catholicism. And entertainment was provided by the Gospel Harmony Singers, a quartet of Glenmarians that included Father O'Donnell, specializing in singing Gospel harmonies.

His ready smile and outgoing personality served him well in his work in the area of ecumenism. For five years he focused solely on furthering Catholic-Baptist dialogue as a representative to the Southern Baptist Convention on behalf of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Committee on Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue. A Glenmarian has filled this position since 1967.

"One can hardly be a Glenmary Home Missioner and not rub shoulders with Baptists," Father O'Donnell said. "In almost every county in which Glenmary organizes mission churches, Baptists are overwhelmingly number-one...Even so, Baptists and Catholics knew so little about one another...Today, we are trying hard to understand each other. We must pray and we must work and let the Holy Spirit do the rest."

That's how Father O'Donnell approached his ecumenical work, which continued during his last pastorate at Holy Redeemer in 1981, when he began working as the part-time director of ecumenism for the Diocese of Owensboro. After he took senior membership in Glenmary in 1997, the director position became full-time. He also served on the executive board of the Kentucky Council of Churches and on the Commission on Ecumenism of the Kentucky Catholic Conference. And he continued attending the yearly Southern Baptist Convention assemblies, both in the state and on the national level.

He moved to Glenmary's Headquarters in 2003 to better cope with the onset of Alzheimer's disease. "I feel thankful that God called me to this Glenmary way of life and that I responded," he said when he celebrated his 50th jubilee. "I'm richer for it in hundreds of ways."