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Boston's first cardinal

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In October 1911, news arrived that then Archbishop O'Connell was to be made a cardinal by Pope Pius X ...

Nov. 27 marks the 105th anniversary of William Henry O'Connell's elevation to cardinal.

Cardinal O'Connell was born in Lowell, on Dec. 8, 1859, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and baptized at St. Peter's Church in Lowell, on the same day. He was the youngest of 11 children born to John and Bridget O'Connell, who had immigrated to the United States from County Cavan, Ireland.

His father died in September 1865, when he was only 5 years old. Fortunately, as former archivist and historian James O'Toole points out, his brothers were able to provide financial security in the absence of their father. Rather than leaving school early to practice a trade, he was able to complete his studies through high school, and then enroll at St. Charles College, Baltimore, in September 1876.

Though the reason is not clear, Cardinal O'Connell left the school after only two years, his coursework incomplete, but this brief stumble did not deter him. Upon returning to Lowell, he continued his secondary education at Boston College, graduating in June of 1881, and entered the American College in Rome shortly thereafter. Three years later, on June 8, 1884, he was ordained at the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

Following his ordination, Cardinal O'Connell returned to the United States and served in the Archdiocese of Boston. His first assignment was curate at St. Joseph's Church, Medford, and then at St. Joseph's Church, Boston. He fulfilled these roles for a total of about 10 years when, in 1895, he was appointed rector of his alma mater, the American College in Rome. He remained in this position until April 22, 1901, when he was consecrated as the Bishop of Portland, Maine.

His stature would continue to grow when, in August 1905, he was appointed papal legate to Japan, and on his return voyage from Asia, learned he had been named coadjutor of the Archdiocese of Boston and future successor to Archbishop John Joseph Williams. The latter passed away on Aug. 30, 1907, at which time Cardinal O'Connell succeeded him.

The year 1908, his first year as archbishop, was marked by two milestones. The first was the celebration of the centennial of the Archdiocese of Boston. He also purchased The Pilot in the same year, saving its owners from financial trouble, and tying it closer to the archdiocese as its official voice.

In October 1911, news arrived that then Archbishop O'Connell was to be made a cardinal by Pope Pius X, and he departed for Rome on Nov. 11. He arrived two weeks later, and during the several day ceremony, was elevated to cardinal on Nov. 27, 1911. After spending the winter abroad, he returned triumphantly to Boston, the first cardinal to serve as the Archbishop of Boston.

During his remaining years as archbishop, Cardinal O'Connell received many additional honors, including time served as a trustee of the Boston Public Library, an honorary doctorate in law from Harvard University, and an honorary Doctorate of Divinity from the Catholic University of America.

Cardinal O'Connell's served as Archbishop of Boston until his death on April 22, 1944, at the age of 84. He passed away at the cardinal's residence in Brighton, of which he was the first resident, having overseen its completion in 1927. He is buried on the campus of St. John's Seminary in Brighton.

For further reading, see:

"Militant and Triumphant: William Henry O'Connell and the Catholic Church in Boston, 1859-1944." By James M. O'Toole.

"Recollections of Seventy Years." By William Cardinal O'Connell.

William Henry Cardinal O'Connell Papers, 1876-1945. Archives, Archdiocese of Boston.


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