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Young Catholics remember Bishop David O’Connell as a father figure with a ‘shepherd heart’

Devoted, humble, “down to earth” and a “father figure” — this was how many young Catholics describe the late Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell.

Santa Ana resident Beverli Reyna said he “genuinely cared” about people. Being a bishop — one of the highest clergy rankings in the Roman Catholic Church — made him that much more “approachable,” no matter your age, race, what you believe or where you come from.

“He was always very invested, driving himself, even showing at the small parish events,” she said. “You could tell that he was always interested in our well-being to grow as young adults, in community. It always made me want to do more in my faith.”

Bishop David O’Connell seen with young adults at an event in September 2019. (Photo courtesy of Michael Ramirez)

The late Bishop David O’Connell is seen at a young adult conference at Azusa in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Ian Vergara)

Bishop David O’Connell celebrates Mass at St. John Vianney parish in Hacienda Heights, down the street from his home. (Photo courtesy of Michael Ramirez)

Bishop David O’Connell is seen in 2019 with young adults at a Mass celebrating the 40th anniversary of his priesthood, at St. John Vianney Church in Hacienda Heights. (Photo courtesy of Michael Ramirez)

Bishop David O’Connell prays during a Mass for young adults held at Huntington Beach in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Michael Ramirez)

Bishop David O’Connell seen at a meeting with youth at the Newman Center at St. Philip the Apostle Church in Pasadena. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Tobin)

Bishop David O’Connell with local young adults in the San Gabriel Valley region. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Tobin)

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O’Connell’s sudden death stunned many in the Roman Catholic faith who worked with and encountered him throughout his ministry. And that includes the church’s youth and young adult community, whom the bishop was closely connected with.

On Saturday, Feb. 18, authorities found O’Connell, 69, dead by gunshot wound at his Hacienda Heights home. The suspect, whom officials say had previously worked at the bishop’s home and whose wife was the bishop’s housekeeper, has since been arrested. Though a motive has not yet determined, authorities are calling it a murder investigation.

O’Connell was named an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles by Pope Francis in 2015, and was assigned to oversee the San Gabriel Valley region. Officials said he served as a priest and later bishop in the archdiocese for 45 years.

Local Catholics say that O’Connell’s deep dedication to ministering to young people — along with involvement in region-wide church initiatives and ministries — was what made him genuine and accessible.

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Young adult Michael Ramirez has been working with O’Connell for years, as part of a regional council representing different parishes in the area. He and a group of volunteers had regular meetings with the bishop at his office in Irwindale. Ramirez said a meeting was scheduled for that Saturday — the day the bishop was killed — but he never showed.

“We were disturbed; we knew something had happened,” said Ramirez, who lives in Gardena. “We were going to discuss a new project he wanted to start that would teach people to be peacemakers. That’s who he was; always so enthusiastic, starting and supporting new initiatives… everyone who met him felt close to him because of his tenderness. You felt like he really saw you (and) knew you.”

Ramirez and other young adults said that O’Connell was always involved in ministry events throughout the area; from parish retreats and Bible studies, to big public Masses and displays of faith. The bishop sometimes celebrated open Masses, including one on Huntington Beach, with the goal of evangelizing and getting peoples’ attention.

Father Albert Avenido, of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Covina, leads a street mass in memory of LA Archdiocese Bishop Rev. David O’Connell, who was killed yesterday nearby, in Hacienda Heights on Sunday, February 19, 2023.(Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)

He often visited the poor and homeless on Skid Row, supported immigration reform programs, was known to drop by L.A.-area Catholic schools and raise funds to help keep them open, and gave passionate talks at conferences packed with youth. He helped establish several community-style homes for young men and women, and often held retreats for them. His office often had a line out the door, full of young people waiting to talk to him.

As local churches and fellowship events were shut down during the pandemic, O’Connell would share video messages to stay connected and encourage young Catholics, stuck in their homes, to remain faithful.

“Bishop Dave saw the loneliness, the hurt, the effect of brokenness from our culture on young people, and he had a heart to bring healing to these places,” Ramirez said. “He pursued youth and young adults in the church with a father’s heart, a shepherd’s heart.”

Ramirez also said that the bishop — who was born in County Cork, Ireland — had a “deep Irish humor,” sometimes joking about being a “wild young adult himself.”

“He’d use humor to teach the Gospel, the message of Jesus, and share his deep devotion to Our Lady, to the Divine Mercy,” he said. “He always broke down barriers and was so down to earth; he never exalted himself… Bishop Dave redefined so much of the generosity of God throughout his life, that he had so much to give back.”

Laura Corza, a parishioner at St. John Neumann church in Irvine, said that the bishop “had a heart for people,” regardless of their race, creed, legal status or other factors.

“He was always alongside us; blessing our dreams and wiping tears,” said Corza, who lives in Tustin. “He was warm and disarming with his presence, and set you at ease. He didn’t have to know you well, but he made himself available — and you were the only person who mattered when he did.”

Bishop O’Connell with young adults Sean and Nicole Tobin. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Tobin)

Bishop David O’Connell seen in 2022 blessing residents at The Villa, a community house for Catholic women, in Duarte. (Courtesy of Mariela Arellano)

Bishop David O’Connell seen at a 2019 young adult event with Michael Ramirez. (Photo courtesy of Michael Ramirez)

Bishop David O’Connell seen in 2022 blessing The Villa, a community house for young Catholic women, in Duarte. (Courtesy of Mariela Arellano)

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Mariela Arellano said she first met O’Connell in her later teen years, and watched him grow his ministry by working closely with immigrants and young people.

She called O’Connell a “man of action, who always showed up; never boasting.”

Arellano remembers when, two years ago, she and a group of single Catholic women were looking for a communal house in the valley. They worked with O’Connell and his staff to help find and raise funds, converting an old retreat house in Duarte into The Villa, where she now lives.

In February 2022, one year ago, the bishop went to The Villa to bless the new space and its residents.

“His blessing gave me so much consolation in a time of hardship,” Arellano said. “Bishop Dave always supported us young women and our community. He was very supportive of our vocations… he was a bishop and a friend, and his people always came first.”

Studies have shown more youth and young adults — including those who are baptized — are leaving the Catholic Church in droves. Those who knew Bishop O’Connell said he encouraged many young people to find their hope and reason to stay.

Nicole and Sean Tobin moved to Los Angeles in 2014, not long after getting married, and connected with O’Connell while getting involved in the local Catholic scene. With the bishop’s support, they started the Encounter School of Ministry, Los Angeles campus during the pandemic.

The Tobins recalled fond memories of breakfasts and sushi with the bishop, visits with his dog — and the familiar flannel shirt he would always wear over his clergy collar.

“He was like a shepherd who smelled like the sheep. His presence and friendship was the greatest gift that he could give,” said Sean Tobin. “He was so in touch with the suffering and loneliness of our generation. He knew that young people just needed to hear that we are loved by Jesus.”

Nicole Tobin remembers O’Connell’s “unwavering” support in the official opening of the Newman Center, a young adult gathering space at St. Philip the Apostle Church in Pasadena, in 2022. Many involved at the center shared fond memories of the Bishop’s presence at their events.

“It was like God brought Bishop Dave into our lives as this awesome dad we could come to, for anything we need,” said Nicole Tobin. “He was never too busy for someone. And I think, because of that, he was always so approachable — because he wanted young people to know that they belonged.”

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