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This Franciscan fought fires, landed on an aircraft carrier and built a skyscraper

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From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has encouraged priests and bishops to be servant leaders, shepherds who smell like their sheep. Hundreds of years before him, St. Francis of Assisi believed the friars should not be seen as better than the laity, but as their brothers in Christ. 

Throughout his life, Father John O’Connor, a Franciscan friar and the parochial administrator of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Triangle, has tried to take those messages to heart. “We are as you are,” he told young adults at Theology on Tap in Woodbridge Nov. 28. This priority has led him to embrace a wide range of life experiences, from joining a fire department to partnering with high-powered real estate moguls. 

Father O’Connor was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but was raised in Queens and then lived upstate. He received his undergraduate degree from Catholic University in Washington and made his profession of solemn vows in 1971. Two years later, he was ordained a priest and assigned to St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y. 

Father O’Connor has served the church in many pastoral roles. He was director of Holy Name College seminary and relocated the school from Washington to its current location in Silver Spring, Md. He was chaplain of Trinity University in Washington and pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church from 1991 to 2003. After that, he served as provincial of Holy Name Province —  the group of friars minor on the East Coast. At St. Bonaventure, he was the director of campus ministry, pastor of the university parish and adjunct professor of theology.

While there, he was asked to be chaplain of the local fire department, and also decided to join the volunteers. “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this,” he told them. 

The first call he got was for a restaurant right across the street from the university. It was a February night with temperatures at 5 below zero. When he put on his equipment and arrived at the scene, smoke was billowing out of the eaves. As they began to make entry, the second floor exploded, sending flaming debris everywhere. One of his companions told him, “I’ve been a firefighter for 28 years; this is the closest I’ve come to getting killed.” 

Years later in Triangle, Father O’Connor joined the Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue as a chaplain. Shortly afterward, a courier for the department suffered a heart attack while driving. He regained a pulse but showed no other signs of life, said Chief Kevin McGee, who also came to the Theology on Tap. 

For days, Father O’Connor prayed in the man’s hospital room. The doctors believed there was no brain activity and that he should be taken off life support, but his wife decided to give it one more day. The next day, he showed signs of life and later made a full recovery. “We attribute it to a miracle,” said McGee. Today, Father O’Connor is the head of all chaplains for the department. 

Before he was provincial, Father O’Connor served as director of real estate and finance for the Holy Name Province. At that time, the Franciscans owned several properties in Manhattan and, after assessing the feasibility, he decided to build a skyscraper to house the friary. 

Father O’Connor knew nothing about construction, tax law or what it took to build in New York City. He relied on experts to teach him, and got by with the help of lawyers and the other friars. The first obstacle was finding a partner. He was told it could be difficult, because partners didn’t like novice partners or ethical ones. “What makes you think we’re ethical?” joked another friar.

Father O’Connor spent four and half years in conference rooms just to negotiate the construction. He quickly learned that it was a cutthroat industry. “(We’d have) meetings with our so-called partners, and our lawyers and our partners’ lawyers would be screaming at each other,” he said. 

After the meeting, “My team would say, ‘Good meeting, good meeting.’ I’d say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”

Even before the deal was signed, the Franciscans poured millions of dollars into the building, knowing that if they didn’t, the impending recession could halt progress altogether. The night before they closed the deal, their lawyer worried it might not go through. When Father O’Connor arrived at the hotel the next morning, $1 million had slipped through the cracks, and they had to negotiate who would pay for it. Just before noon, their partners called the deal off.

Though Father O’Connor was worried about how he would explain this to the Franciscans, his lawyer assured him they were bluffing. Sure enough, they called back 40 minutes later and the complicated deal was back on.

“Four hundred documents over two days had to be signed,” said Father O’Connor. “In many ways, it was a great experience, but it took about two years off my life,” he joked. Now, the Franciscans share the 63-floor building with apartments and the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge, where patients can stay rent-free while receiving treatment at nearby hospitals. 

Of all his adventures, Father O’Connor loves to recount the time he landed on (and took off from) an aircraft carrier. While at Trinity University, he met a retired fighter pilot who said he could get Father O’Connor on a VIP list for a flight. That December, he drove down to Norfolk, was strapped into a twin engine aircraft and set off for the ocean. 

The next day a “wicked storm” arose, making it impossible for Father O’Connor and the other guests to leave the ship, he said. Waves were breaking over the bow and he could see fishing boats in the distance going up one side of the giant waves and then crashing down the other. While one sailor reassuringly told him not to worry, another tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Father, this is the worst I’ve ever seen it.” 

Eventually, the storm calmed down and he was able to leave the ship as usual —  by the plane being catapulted off. 

“(The plane) goes from 0 to 160 miles per hour in four seconds,” he said. “That part didn't bother me. When you go off the deck, you dip (first and that was scary,)” he said.

For the past 25 years, a painting of a boat docked in the harbor has hung in his room. The piece was painted and given to him by a woman dying of cancer, whom he helped bring into the church during the last few weeks of her life. The painting’s idyllic scene reminds Father O’Connor that true greatness comes not from accomplishing heroic or prestigious feats but by doing the work of God. 

“The best thing we can do is to give a person the gift of life, to help her see the goodness in herself,” he said. 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016