Rabbi remembers Catholic Bishop Edward J. O’Donnell

by various faith groups. Honesty and integrity were his hallmarks.


The St. Louis Post-Dispatch took note of the recent passing of Bishop Edward J. O’Donnell, emphasizing his role as a bishop. Those of us who knew and worked alongside him also knew him as a pioneer in inter-faith relations and a masterful communicator of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.

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His colleagues in the clergy of all faiths knew him as an authentic, honest, skillful yet humble friend. When I first met him, he told me with pride that his sister was a teacher of secular subjects at the Epstein Hebrew Academy, a Jewish parochial school. He was a frequent speaker in my synagogue and in the Jewish community.

In the late 1960s, he was one of the founders of the Interfaith Clergy Council of St. Louis. Father O’Donnell’s idea was that clergy could work together for the good of the community. The IFCC thrived for many years, and was later absorbed into the Interfaith Partnership.

Fr. O’Donnell then served as co-chair of the Archdiocesan Commission on Ecumenical Affairs. He was soon named a Monsignor, and became deeply involved in many initiatives with peoples of all religions. Active in the National Conference of Christians and Jews, he participated in many dialogue programs. Yet, he never abandoned his religious beliefs. He and his partner, Msgr. Joseph Baker, let us know when they disagreed with actions taken by various faith groups. Honesty and integrity were his hallmarks.

Msgr. O’Donnell then was appointed editor of the St. Louis Review. During all of these years, he also served as beloved pastor of his parishes.

For more than 25 years, Bishop O’Donnell, Rev. Robert Tabscott, and I were the KMOX religious panel. We would regularly discuss issues of the day from a religious perspective. The bishop’s answers to questions posed to him were precise, well-articulated and sincere. Robert Hyland, then general manager of the station, told us that he consistently received complimentary calls about the nature of the program, and the mutual respect generated by it.

When Bishop O’Donnell was named Bishop of Lafayette, La., he asked that his farewell service be intimate and informal. On an evening in the Cathedral Basilica, with then-Archbishop Justin Rigali officiating, prayers were offered for his continued service. He said to me, “Jeff, please say a beracha — a blessing over me.” I had the rare privilege of blessing him in the words of the priestly blessing from the Bible, in Hebrew and English, in that awesome Cathedral.

Illness took a great toll on Bishop O’Donnell. Parkinson’s did not even allow him that smile, which marked his personality. Yet his faith held true. Visiting him there, I asked whether he sometimes became angry about being afflicted. “No,” he said, “My frustrations are erased by my faith.”

He was truly a priest of God and a lover of all humanity.

Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman is Rabbi Emeritus, Congregation Shaare Emeth.