Remember Brother Dominic, C.F.X. [Patrick O'Connell]

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This article was originally published in a series of reflections based on the lives of Xaverian Brothers who have played influential roles in the life and development of the Congregation in America. They are written in commemoration of the Xaverian Brothers 150th Anniversary of their arrival in America in 1854.

Written by Brother James Kelly, C.F.X.

On September 18, 1907, the following appeared in an article in the Baltimore American:

In an unornamented wooden coffin, Brother Dominic, late Provincial of the Xaverian Order in America, was laid to rest yesterday morning in Bonnie Brae Cemetery.

No box was in the grave to keep out the earthdamp and the elements, which bring about the return of the flesh to the earth whence it came, and no stone will tell the passer-by that he is walking by what remains of the earthly temple of one of the most unselfish and most Christian characters that Baltimore has ever known. As Brother Dominic’s life was a life of sacrifice, so was his leaving the world, the death of sacrifice.

Hundreds turned out to pay their last tribute to the man
of God, who had for a generation worked among the
people of Baltimore, helping wayward boys to turn about
in their paths of recklessness and lead better lives. Some of the most prominent citizens of this city, irrespective of religious belief, went to the funeral service at Saint Mary’s Industrial School to do honor to the teacher and worker who had aided them in uplifting their fellow men.

As the Baltimore American notes, when our Brother Dominic O’Connell died, all of Baltimore, Catholic and non-Catholic, mourned his passing. His life as a Xaverian Brother was marked by a particular love for poor and homeless boys, and under his leadership we opened a number of child care institutions, most of which did not survive long after his Provincialate. Mount Saint Joseph’s Industrial School in Millbury, Massachusetts, Saint John’s Industrial School in Deep River, Connecticut, Saint Francis Manual Training School in Elm Grove, West Virginia, and St. Joseph’s Home in Detroit, Michigan soon became just a part of Xaverian history, but a tribute, nevertheless, to Brother Dominic’s great heart. He reminded us of God’s love for the poor and the marginalized long before we were able to articulate those sentiments in our chapter documents.

Born in Rock Chapel, County Cork, Ireland in 1839, Patrick O’Connell was reared in poverty, but his parents recognized his talent and gave him the advantage of a good education. Trained in a “normal school course,” he became a teacher first in England and then in Louisville, Kentucky, where he met the Xaverian Brothers. Entering on August 13, 1868 and receiving the Holy Habit and the name Dominic on December 3, 1868, he was professed on December 31, 1870. He began his teaching career at Saint Xavier in Louisville and, in 1876, was appointed the first Director of Mount Saint Joseph in Baltimore where he served not only as principal of the school but as Novice Master for the Brothers. A deeply spiritual man, he was particularly suited to the office of Novice Master, giving his Novices a “crash course” in the religious life since most of them were sent to the missions after a very short stay in the Novitiate. Brother Dominic served as Novice Master for his own brother, Brother Lawrence.

In 1883 Brother Dominic was assigned as the Director of Saint Patrick’s School in Lowell, Massachusetts, a mission which would provide him with one of the great trials of his life. Brother Julian recounts:

How often a man’s heart rather than his head gets him into trouble. To good, kind Brother Dominic was to come the crucial test that sometimes enters the life of a man of God – – – the trial of being misunderstood. It was while at Lowell. . . . that he procured for the Brothers a week’s outing at Nabnasset Pond, at which time occurred the tragic drowning of Brother Bonaventure. It seems that Brother Dominic was held blameworthy for this accident. Strained relations began to exist between him and the Provincial, culminating in his removal from Lowell and the Office of Superior. Not immediately after the accident was he removed, but suddenly right in the middle of the following school year. Brother Dominic was called to Baltimore, and assigned to Saint Mary’s Industrial School as one of the teachers and prefects. To a man of upright intentions, and Brother Dominic was the soul of honesty, this was a severe test of virtue. The being removed from office in itself was not a test, for no sensible man regrets that. But the manner and the time of the removal, the fact that the reason was unknown, the seeming injustice; these are hard to bear, unbearable to a man whose virtue is not deep- seated. In a Christ-like man, as Brother Dominic, they are permitted by God for reasons unknown at the time. . . . . Brother Dominic, retiring by nature, never sought honors; they sought him. The very strength of will with which he dominated office now called forth all of his reserve strength, and he stood, proving himself a man of character for whom greater things were in store.

To Saint Mary’s Industrial School, he was sent in February, 1887. There he began to teach and to prefect, the cloud hanging over him the while. This did not prevent his working whole-heartedly. A man of his character has no time to indulge in idle repining, or to think himself a much afflicted martyr. His was too great a heart to shirk duty because of real or fancied wrongs; still he would not have been human if he had not felt the humiliation to which he was subjected so suddenly and so unaccountably.

Whatever his feelings might have been, Brother Dominic quietly and obediently accepted his assignment at Saint Mary’s Industrial School where, as a teacher, he came to the notice of Cardinal Gibbons who said, “That is the man who should be at the head of this institution.”

Appointed a director at Saint Mary’s Industrial School, he remained in that position when he was appointed Provincial on the death of Brother Alexius in 1900. Again, Brother Julian writes:

As a Provincial he was loved. None could possibly associate fear with him. His solicitude of the sick endeared him to all. . .Where his heart lay, his interest went; and he loved the poor and the destitute. For them he lived, and among them he died. When Cardinal Gibbons, who was out of the city when Brother Dominic died, was informed of his death, he asked where he died, and on being told that it was at Saint Mary’s, he replied: “His first and last love.”

In our Fundamental Principles, we read:

It is through your life of Gospel witness lived in common with your brothers that God desires to manifest
His care and compassionate love
to those who are separated and estranged, not only from their neighbors,
but also from their own uniqueness;
to those who suffer
from want, neglect and injustice:
the poor, the weak and the oppressed of this world.

Brother Dominic was committed to the “poor and the marginalized” long before we were able to articulate that part of our religious history. He was a man whose faith called him to action for the poor, committing us as a Congregation to work among them. Victims as we are of our own success, our current corporate ministries and the rather high cost which we must charge for education can lead us to forget our roots with the poor and all that Brother Dominic stood for. From his place in heaven, he might gently remind us, “My Brothers, remember the poor.” And he would probably rejoice to see the work we are proposing to do in Africa with street children and the work which Brothers Brian Vetter and Martin Boone are doing in Bolivia with the poor. He would rejoice, as well, to see us sponsoring Mother Seton Academy in Baltimore and Nativity Academy at Saint Boniface in Louisville, two cities very dear to his heart. He would perhaps gently remind us, for he was a gentle man, to instruct the students in our schools to have a respect and a love for those less fortunate than themselves.

Perhaps more than anything else Brother Dominic can teach us how a man of God deals with being misjudged and misunderstood. It would perhaps be difficult for most of us to accept with equanimity a public humiliation such as Brother Dominic endured in Lowell. Yet history shows that God was at work even in Brother Dominic’s hour of trial. If he had not been assigned to Saint Mary’s, he would not have come to the attention of Cardinal Gibbons who saw to it that Brother Dominic was given the opportunity to undertake his great work for the poor. With Ryken, Brother Dominic could truly say, “The ways of God’s Providence are often inscrutable, but always adorable.”

 

We invite you to reflect on Brother Dominic’s story and consider leaving a comment about someone (a Brother, a colleague, a friend) who embodies similar qualities to Brother Dominic. Share with us that individual’s special qualities, so that as a community we can share in your gratitude! 

 

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