Father Gerald T. O’Connor, who led parishes in central Steuben County for 25 years and spent most of his priesthood in his native Southern Tier, died Nov. 20, 2009, at his home after a long bout with cancer. He was 69.
Father O’Connor grew up in Elmira’s St. Patrick Parish. He attended St. Patrick School and Notre Dame High School, then St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries in Rochester. He was ordained June 4, 1966.
He was assistant pastor at St. Thomas More Parish, Brighton (1966-71), during which time he also served in the Spanish Apostolate in Geneva and with Bishop Sheen Ecumenical Housing Foundation. From 1971-79 he was assistant pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes, Elmira, and also taught at St. Patrick Junior High School and served as chaplain at Notre Dame High School. He then served as assistant pastor at St. Mary of the Lake, Watkins Glen/St. Benedict, Odessa (1979-82) and St. Francis de Sales, Geneva (1982).
In 1982 Father O’Connor moved to Steuben County and became pastor of St. Stanislaus in Bradford and St. Joseph in Campbell, while also assisting at St. Mary in Corning. In 1991 he became administrator of St. Catherine Parish in Addison. He oversaw the Addison, Bradford and Campbell churches — commonly known as the "A-B-C" parishes — until his 2007 retirement.
Father Patrick Connor, current pastor of the A-B-C churches, said Father O’Connor encouraged his flock to take ownership of their parishes.
"He once told me before I came (as pastor) that the parish runs itself; all I have to do is show up. It shows how they took his belief in them to heart," Father Connor said. "He loved to see people grow, not just in terms of age, but in becoming this vision of Christ we call church, the people of God."
During his active years Father O’Connor endured a series of heart attacks and surgeries but still carried on his priestly ministry. In fact, at one point he postponed a surgery for a month to accommodate his holiday Mass schedule.
"When we were in the seminary we were trained to be rugged individuals, to be our own men," he explained in a 2003 Catholic Courier interview. "We never thought of taking it easy. You were there for the people, ordained for the people."
David Goff, a friend of Father O’Connor’s since childhood, noted that Father O’Connor "would drive 50 or more miles to help people when they needed his support and consoling words. He worked tirelessly to meet parishioners’ needs and never complained about his heavy workload. Every week he visited hospitals in Corning, Elmira, Bath and Montour Falls, sometimes even in Rochester."
Goff, a parishioner of All Saints in Corning/Painted Post, described the priest as "opinionated and, yet, very kind and gentle" who "had an extraordinary Irish sense of humor." Father O’Connor was a lifelong member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians of Elmira.
In retirement Father O’Connor lived full-time at his residence in Himrod, on the east side of Seneca Lake. His dedication to others was reciprocated during his long illness as scores of priests, former parishioners and other friends visited his home, bringing him meals and helping with upkeep of the house. Father O’Connor also received numerous cards and phone calls, and area parishes prayed regularly for him.
He is survived by his sister, Maryalice (Edward) Purcell; brother, Francis "Skilly" (Ann) O’Connor; brother-in-law, Eugene Adkins; and several nieces and nephews.
Father O’Connor will lie in state at St. Patrick Church in Elmira on Monday, Nov. 23, from 3 to 7 p.m. and Tuesday, Nov. 24, from 9 to 11 a.m. His funeral Mass will take place at St. Patrick Church on Nov. 24 at 11 a.m., with Bishop Matthew H. Clark presiding. Interment was to be in the priests’ plot at Elmira’s Ss. Peter and Paul Cemetery.