An Homage to Ann O'Connor, Acolyte of Dorothy Day

'In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.' -- Pope Francis                                                                                                     

'(Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin) wanted no organization, so The Catholic Worker groups have always been free associations of people who are working together to get out a paper, to run houses of hospitality for themselves and for others who come in off the road. -- Dorothy Day

'What we do know is that active love, the Ubi Caritas that Christ calls his disciples to, is the preeminent but unfinished business of not only Unity Kitchen Community of the Catholic Worker but of the whole church, the Body of Christ. -- Ann O'Connor and Peter King, The Unity Grapevine, Summer 2014

In reading commentary generated by Pope Francis' speech at yesterday's Joint Session of Congress, much has been made of the pope's nod to Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and, improbably, herself once somewhat contrary in the eyes of many within the Church hierarchy.

Above photo, Ann O’Connor and Peter King by Michael Greenlar / 

I immediately then thought how sad that my aunt, Ann O'Connor, was not around to see or even hear the Pope's remarks. Ann was an acolyte of Dorothy Day, and a co-founder of Unity Kitchen, the Catholic Worker community still battling for the poor in Syracuse, N.Y. Ann and her husband, Peter King, helped guide the community for more than 40 years. Peter, now a widower seeking to enter the priesthood, leads it still.

Pictured, Dorothy Day, 1897-1980, in her seniority, Wikimedia. Photo of Ann O'Connor and Peter King above by Michael Greenlar, courtesy

Ann died in January at the age of 81, and I recall through the 19 years of our acquaintance that Ann too, while always respectful of Church authority, seemed somewhat muted in her enthusiasm for the Church leadership's approach to poverty, which I suspect she felt often seemed distracted from its core mission of serving the least among us. This, too, she had in common with Day.

Father Vincent W. Hevern, a professor at Le Moyne University, and like Pope Francis a Jesuit, concelebrated Ann's Jan. 24 funeral Mass at Syracuse's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Here's a transcript of his homily, which documents the remarkable journey of faith that Ann came to exemplify.

Let me ask you to close your eyes and picture Ann O’Connor sitting by herself in her wheelchair with no one around. Do you see her? Her gaze straight ahead as she sits in thought. Her straight grey hair in a bun, but probably covered by a kerchief. Her hands gnarled. Able only to move the control knob on the chair to turn it around, but unable to turn even herself in that chair. Can you see her sitting there alone? Alright, let me ask: How many other people do you know who are more helpless or more dependent or more physically vulnerable than Ann in that setting? Perhaps some, in a hospital ICU or abandoned on the streets. But not many, I’d guess.

Pictured, young wheelchair-bound Ann O'Connor, and her father, Francis O'Connor Sr. (my grandfather), circa 1956

Yet, despite her physical dependence and a body marked by the deformations of rheumatoid arthritis, does anyone here really remember Ann as weak? She was someone who could fix you with those resolute eyes and speak directly – plain and simple – in ways that let you know that here was a woman as strong as steel. But, how can this be? In a world which idolizes the beautiful and the wealthy, in a celebrity culture of images and artifice, how can this unadorned daughter of Syracuse have been so resolute, so commanding, so much a contradiction to the superficial nonsense of our era?

All three readings that we just heard provide us the answer loud and clear. Perhaps the most central belief that Ann’s life expressed resonated deeply with the words of Our Lord on the Mount:

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.”

And if Ann lived the poverty that Jesus spoke of on the Mount, what she did have – her days and years, her attentive listening, her sense of the preciousness of every life – these she gave away freely and without expecting any recompense in a continual ministry of hospitality.

Here Jesus is asking His followers to embrace the reality of who we are: creatures dependent on the goodness of His Father and ours. To be dependent as a Christian can take many forms, but in whatever shape we choose to live as Christians, we must somehow embrace poverty if we ever hope to be true to Our Lord as He is true to us. Ann believed utterly that God would take care of her. She certainly never amassed very many possessions though that library of the masterpieces of literature at Hesed House is an understandable exception, a fault we Jesuits especially appreciate. No, she had few material resources. When the van broke down, somehow God would inspire some kind soul to offer one that worked. She didn’t worry; if you are poor in Christ, you are free of such fears. When the house burnt, well, you know what happened. It’s not fancy, but the generosity of so many here restored that home and its living quarters to her and to Peter and their guests. And, in her poverty, what riches of the imagination, of delight in all things simple and whole, of appreciation for beauty and grace and the panoply of God’s creation, what riches she experienced in ways that call us to weigh how free we are of our own cares and burdens so we might experience the same.

And if Ann lived the poverty that Jesus spoke of on the Mount, what she did have – her days and years, her attentive listening, her sense of the preciousness of every life – these she gave away freely and without expecting any recompense in a continual ministry of hospitality.

When God appeared to Abraham by the oak of Mamre in the guise of three travellers, our father in the faith showered upon these strangers all the generosity he could muster. He washed their feet, and rested them under the tree, and sated their hunger in lavish fashion. And, in recompense, the Lord God gave to Abraham and his wife what they lacked, what seemed impossible to imagine: a child in their old age. How absurd a gift that Sarah could only laugh. But God reminded them, “Is anything too marvelous for the LORD to do?”

So, like Abraham and his wife, Ann and Peter and so many here have tried to emulate the welcome for the weary and the stranger that the Lord would send their way as He Himself came in that episode in Genesis. In a world that trumpets the supreme value of exchange capitalism – that we will only barter what we have with each other if I can somehow made a profit from that trade – Ann’s response was “no.” For all that is truly important, especially life itself, there is no price, no currency of exchange that needs to secure such human transactions. Whether it be the coming to birth of every child, or feeding the hungry, or protecting those from death at the hands of violent passions and warring nations, Ann’s hospitality formed one continuous panel across that seamless garment of life which Cardinal Bernadin urged us to weave as our ultimate Christian response to the world today.

There waiting in greeting are Francis and Kathryn, her parents, and Fran and Ellie and Kathie, too. A smiling Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin as well, eager to share all their wisdom with a soul who already knew so much of what they knew.

As we think about how much she tried to be of service to others, perhaps we also need recall the hospitality and the supportive embrace that you, her family and friends, gave her in return. I would probably get in trouble if I were to try to read out a list of everyone who contributed to her well-being; I can’t claim to know who you all are. But, I would get in trouble if I didn’t acknowledge her partner in marriage. One former Jesuit novice who left us years ago wrote on my Facebook page the other day: “I remember Ann and Peter well from my time in St. Andrews. What an inspiring couple they were to me ... altruistic and so in love.” Indeed. And, as St. Ignatius Loyola reminds us, love is shown more in deeds than in words. The indefatigable and unceasing care Peter gave Ann for so long: Has there ever been a more real testament to married love?

But, there is still one more reading: St. Peter in the Acts of the Apostles, on his way from Jerusalem to Joppa along the Mediterranean coast. On that trip, Peter did what the Lord Jesus did. Faced with the seeming death of the disciple Tabitha, he prayed over her and told her to “rise up” and, like Lazarus at the command of Jesus, she too arose to renewed life. This wonder sign testified to all who witnessed it the power of Jesus in whose footsteps Peter came preaching. Biblical commentators note that her name in Greek, Dorcas, means a gazelle – that small, elegant, and swift creature that can match the speed of a car going 60 mph. Well, the disciple Tabitha received back her life and her mobility. What amazing things the Lord can accomplish.

Now it seems to me that I can relate this story to Ann in just two ways. The first is about amazement. And, it is a story a number of you, particularly the Jesuits, have heard me tell for a while. It happened, I guess, about seven or eight or nine years ago. Coming back from class one afternoon, Peter was on the telephone asking me to come down to Community General Hospital to anoint Ann. When I got there, the scene was grim. She was unconscious, an oxygen mask in place, and her breathing labored. Her face looked pained and Peter told me that the cardiologist was quite worried. He had tried some different things to relieve her cardiopulmonary distress and they weren’t working. I talked briefly outside the cubicle in the ICU with that doctor, and he said he had only one more thing he could do and it involved some sort of injection directly into her heart. So, I busied myself to perform the Sacrament of the Sick and get out of the way: I anointed her, and, as I was leaving, looked back to see the doctor pulling the curtain to perform whatever procedure he had planned. It worked. Of course, I can’t specifically say what “it” was: whether the anointing or the injection or, probably, both. What I can describe is the scene at Unity Kitchen about 10 days later when I came to celebrate Mass that Sunday. There sitting in her chair was a beaming, bright-eyed Ann O’Connor who looked like a woman transformed. I have never been so astonished in my life than I was that morning to see her who had been so close to death now so alive.

My second thought about that passage from Acts asks you once more to picture Ann in your imagination. For just as Tabitha must have been so astonished at what happened to her at Peter’s words, can you not picture Ann’s own astonishment as she passed on to the final embrace of the God who loved her. There she comes forward to be greeted by so many who went before her but have continued to love her deeply. There waiting in greeting are Francis and Kathryn, her parents, and Fran and Ellie and Kathie, too. A smiling Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin as well, eager to share all their wisdom with a soul who already knew so much of what they knew. Waiting are Louie and those other guests of the Kitchen: Gertrude Stout and Helen Bean and Phil Buschle, and all the others whom so many of you knew and welcomed yourselves across the decades. They are there to be with her as she had once been there for them. And, one last image: Ann, herself, now radiant and beaming, unfettered and free forever from pain, smiling and filled without limit by that Love who had called her from her birth, Whom she followed so devotedly, and now Who would give her rest in His arms forever. Amen. Alleluia! 

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Tags: Activism, Faith, Family History

Comment by Fran Reddy on September 26, 2015 at 9:21am

Wonderful story!

Comment by Claire Fullerton on September 26, 2015 at 12:14pm

Beautiful, inspiring, and flowingly well-written. I love evocative pieces that place me in the moment and serve as a reality-check in such a way, where the story of an exemplary life gives opportunity in which to consider myself. This, to me, is an important piece with far-reaching resonance.

Comment by Gerry Regan on September 26, 2015 at 12:36pm

Thanks, Claire. I certainly like to hear that anything I carefully compose might be important. Appreciate this feedback very much.

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Comment by That's Just How It Was on September 30, 2015 at 11:27am

Wonderful article ; What an inspirational person. What wonderful faith she had. 

Comment by Suzee McKee Irwin on October 17, 2015 at 9:10am

Gerry, I am overwhelmed  by the homily you have posted from  Father Hevern' s talk

at Ann O'Connor' s funeral. What an inspiration she was to ALL of us. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to "know" her.


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