Obituary: Father James O’Donohoe, seminary and Boston College professor

The spare six or seven lines on his assignment card, as with so many priests, hardly tell the story of one of the archdiocese’s most recent legends. Father James A. O’Donohoe, known more widely as O’D. He died on Oct. 27 at St. Patrick Manor, Framingham at age 88.

A native of Boston where he was born on Aug. 3, 1921, and raised in Brookline, he was the only child of the late Matthew and Honora (Joyce) O’Donohoe. He attended the grammar and high schools at St. Aidan Parish before heading up the hill to Boston College.

He was graduated from Boston College in 1943 and completed seminary studies at St. John’s, Brighton. Archbishop Richard Cushing ordained him to the priesthood at the cathedral on May 1, 1947. His first assignment was to St. Joseph Parish, Medway where he served for three years. He once quipped that the most important thing he did at the parish was to have baptized Charles Higgins; at the time of this particular boast Charlie was one of his students at the seminary. Charlie was a native son of the Medway parish and the first alumnus of Xaverian Brothers High School ordained to the priesthood. Father Higgins is presently the pastor at St. Joseph, Kingston.

In September 1950 O’D was assigned to study canon law at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. He was home for one summer in 1952 and was an assistant at St. Joseph, Somerville and served briefly in the Metropolitan Tribunal. On his return to Louvain, he completed his studies in canon law and successfully defended his doctoral dissertation on “Tridentine Seminary Legislation: Its Sources and Its Formation.” The volume was a harbinger of his following years of priestly ministry.

He told The Pilot that he had toyed with the idea of being a Jesuit, but “he wanted to be a parish priest.” He opted for that and spent literally his entire priestly life in the classrooms of St. John’s Seminary, Boston College, St. Mary College, Moraga, Calif.; St. Meinrad Seminary, St. Meinrad, Ind. ; and Notre Dame. His teaching was not limited to classrooms though. He was a familiar speaker on two topics principally: liturgy and ethics. He was invited to parish groups, priests’ continuing education programs, sisters’ formation programs, and more. He had an unusual ability to bring focus to his topics and meet the needs of the group with whom he was speaking. He ably and aptly brought clarity to even the most obtuse and obscure points of liturgical law and practice, and insight and understanding to the labyrinth of issues in ethics -- both introductory and “special” as his courses for several generations of priests were titled.

The generations of seminarians, the many priests and even a few bishops he taught sing the single chorus “he was an outstanding teacher.” If he determined that you were bright and academically capable, you had better live up to his expectations, not your own. He pulled no punches about his courses, famously stating to one class regarding “special moral” -- “this is tough stuff.”

Steeped in the tradition of the Church, he was able to bring from the store of the old and present the new. He attributed this to his studies at Louvain which was one of the centers of the beginnings of the renewal of theological life, canonical practice and liturgical studies preceding the Second Vatican Council.

His expertise in the field of medical ethics made him a natural as a consultant for Boston’s archbishops, others on the seminary faculty, his students, priests and laity. He was as happy to answer a question from Cardinal Medeiros as he was to answer one from “your Aunt Margaret,” and did it graciously and with great concern for the topic and the person.

He was also chairman of the Archdiocesan Liturgical Commission, a member of the Archdiocesan Building Commission, and in a return to his canon law life he was a judge of the Metropolitan Tribunal and a member of the Archdiocesan Canonical Affairs Committee.

His tenure at St. John’s was just a week shy of a quarter century. However his impact was greater and larger than the years would indicate. The following two decades saw him return across Commonwealth Avenue to his alma mater where he was professor of theology from 1979 to 1999 when he “retired.” That word never really fit well with O’D.

For many years he was chaplain of the Grey Nuns at their Lexington headquarters. He had come to know the sisters while they cared for his father, Mathew. He served them in this capacity from 1978 to 1996.

Up until a few years ago he was on the speakers’ circuit tackling the growing field of bioethics giving clear evidence that his sharp mind and keen interests were still keeping him going. The “tough stuff” seemed no challenge, but he challenged all of us priests to keep up with the times by offering the best example, his own determination to read, study and be on top of issues.

Even when physical limitations slowed him down and eventually prevented the speaking engagements you could still call on him and get the help you needed or pointed in the right direction.

Priests and former students could easily gather and have countless stories to tell about O’D. His personal interest in their lives beyond the classroom; his constant desire that the liturgy be loved and celebrated accordingly; his great conviction about the incarnational principle -- God got involved in the human situation by the birth of His Son and He’s still involved and working in our situation through the Church.

Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley was the principal celebrant of Father O’Donohoe’s funeral Mass at St. Brigid Church, Lexington on Nov. 2. The homilist was Father Walter Cuenin, Chaplain of Brandeis University, Waltham; and among those joining the cardinal as concelebrants were Central Regional Bishop Robert Hennessey; Father Richard Erikson, archdiocesan vicar general and moderator of the curia; Father Thomas Foley, episcopal vicar for parish life and leadership; Father John Mulloy, Interim Regional Vicar, North Region; Father Arnold Colletti, pastor of St. Brigid and of Sacred Heart Parishes, Lexington; Father Marc R. Montminy, pastor of St. Michael Parish, Exeter, N.H. and St. Mary Parish, Newmarket, N.H.

Following the funeral Mass Father O’Donohoe was buried in St. Joseph Cemetery, West Roxbury.