‘An unassuming Jesuit’
Jerry O’Connell SJ was a Jesuit missionary. He died peacefully in his beloved Zambia on 17 November 2020. Peter Carroll SJ recalls his life of service as a Jesuit and pays tribute to this humble, unassuming’ man, in this obituary below.
‘Kind, considerate and caring’
Jeremiah Howard O’Connell, born in Mallow, Co Cork, on 2 July 1937, was the second of four children, two boys followed by two girls. Jerry was named after his maternal grandfather whose surname was Howard. He understood the significance of this for his mother. His father was the local dispensary doctor so the family grew up with a sense of service to people – day and night! Sadly Jerry’s father died in 1967 two years before he was ordained.
As a result of an illness when she was six months old, Jerry’s sister Mary Carmel (1940-1990) became an invalid unable to walk or do much else. She was central in the family – in spite of limited speech she understood and communicated in her own way. She delighted in being with the family, following whatever was afoot in the house, and loved being taken places in her wheelchair. Jerry’s younger sister Jennie, a Loreto Sister, is the only one who survives him.
Following secondary education at Clongowes Wood, Jerry entered the Jesuit Novitiate at Emo Court on 7 September 1955 while Donal O’Sullivan was novice master. The course of his Jesuit formation followed the traditional pattern – it was not usual at that time for young Jesuits to do a four-year Honours degree in Science.
Accordingly, Jerry studied Science at University College, Dublin from 1957 to 1960. He then became one of the last group to study philosophy at Tullabeg – John J McMahon of the New York Province, who was sent by Fr General as Visitor to the Irish Province in 1961-1962, stunned the Province by his decision to close the philosophate forthwith. As a result, Jerry did the last of his three years of philosophy in Spain.
In 1963, Jerry was sent to the then Northern Rhodesia which was to gain its independence the following year. He studied ChiTonga for one year at Chivuna before teaching for a year at Canisius Secondary school (Canisius College, as it was known then). He then returned to Dublin to teach for a year at Belvedere College while studying for an HDip in Ed and to study theology at Milltown Park (1966-1970). He was ordained a priest on 10 July 1969.
Jerry always considered that he had a double vocation, as a Jesuit and as a missionary. He returned to Zambia in 1971 to begin a priestly life that was to be divided into two very distinct phases, as educator and hospital chaplain. In a rather uncertain time, his early years in education brought a number of sudden changes which must have been demanding for Jerry who was nothing if not an ordered man. He began teaching at Canisius in 1971 and became headmaster from 1972-1973. He was the last Jesuit headmaster – the decision to appoint the first lay headmaster in 1973 was not universally welcomed.
Irish Jesuit and fellow missionary Charlie Searson writes:
My first memory of Jerry was when he was the 35 year old Headmaster of Canisius Secondary (720 boys) – I was a young scholastic in charge of discipline for 160 Form One boarders. I found Jerry very supportive. Most of the boys were easy to deal with but some were quite difficult. Jerry decided that if I couldn’t deal with a certain boy I would send him to him with a note. Jerry listened to the boy’s side of the story and the boy would re-appear in my office with another note saying that he would now accept any instructions I had to offer. My memory of Jerry as headmaster was that he was strict, even stern, but always fair.
In the same year 1973, Kamuzu Banda, President of Malawi, summarily expelled from his country all Zambian Major Seminarians who at that time did their studies in Malawi – one of them was alleged to have defaced the portrait of the Ngwazi, as Kamuzu was called. It was hastily decided that the major seminarians should move to Mpima Minor Seminary in Kabwe. For one year major and minor seminarians shared the seminary at Mpima but it was decided that the minor seminarians should move to Mukasa Minor Seminary in Choma, in Monze Diocese. Jerry taught for a year at Mpima before moving in 1975 with the displaced minor seminarians to Mukasa. He was headmaster at Mukasa from 1976-1986. Priests who were his past students and who attended his funeral spoke warmly of Jerry – he was a tough headmaster, they said, but always fair.
After a short spell as bursar at Canisius in 1987 and a sabbatical which he spent at a retreat house in the Chicago Province (1987-1988), Jerry returned to Canisius for a further three years as teacher of Maths and Science. Then began the new and highly fruitful ministry which was to engage Jerry for most of the rest of his life. He prepared himself by doing at least one CPE course before becoming full-time chaplain at the University Teaching Hospital (U.T.H.) in Lusaka where the late Des O’Loghlen was among his illustrious predecessors. Concurrently (1992-1998) he served as Superior at St Ignatius Jesuit Residence, Lusaka.
U.T.H. is the largest hospital in Zambia, a national 3rd level referral hospital of 1800 beds with extra patients to be found on floor beds, especially in the admission wards. It is an enormous hospital with 7 distinct blocks and a more recently built Cancer Hospital on the same campus. Jerry was very organized in this ministry, systematically visiting the whole hospital at least once a week, the children’s block, the surgical wards, the ICU etc. He was very particular to answer all sick calls that came to the Chaplain’s office either by note or by phone – in fact, he preferred to receive a phone call or a written invitation to visit a sick person rather than a casual wave of the hand when he was visiting someone else in the wards.
Many poor people are to be found at U.T.H., whether the sick or family members or others who accompany patients. Jerry was very conscientious about helping the poor and built up a small fund for this purpose. He was careful to inquire why the person needed help and might suggest that a patient needing to return home to some far-off place might wait until the next ambulance came from that area.
While his dedication to visiting the sick was second to none, Jerry was also a good team player. He organized a team of Eucharistic ministers to bring Holy Communion to the sick and to cover the whole hospital on weekdays and especially on Sundays. This left him free to celebrate the Sacrament of the Sick.
He took very seriously the formation of many novices and seminarians who were sent to the U.T.H. as part of their religious and apostolic formation. He met each of these young people personally and in small groups before he allowed them to begin their duty on the wards, drilling them on the do’s and don’ts of their task and ensuring they were supplied with temporary badges from hospital security.
He assigned each to a particular ward each day and personally introduced them to the nurse in charge. He kept an eye on his young charges during their tour of duty and sat down with them at the end to review their experience.
Christmas is a busy season at U.T.H. Jerry worked very closely with Rev Sikazwe, his United Church of Zambia counterpart, who always spoke very highly of him. They with their team of lay helpers directed parishioners from various parishes who came to sing carols and distribute food to patients, praying with them and instructing them before they set off for the wards. Jerry also worked hard to provide a sumptuous Christmas meal for his office staff and team of Eucharistic ministers.
It can’t have been easy for Jerry when in 1998 he was asked to return to Chikuni Mission as Rector and to teach once again at Canisius. Faithful and loyal as ever, he spent six years there and tried manfully to manage the farm and to sort out thorny property issues which had been allowed to accumulate over a number of years, tasks for which he had no particular aptitude.
It was at this time that his Provincial superior asked him to make some changes that had been suggested by some members of his community. True to his character – forthright, humble and always available to do what he was asked – he told the Provincial that he totally disagreed with the proposed changes but that he would implement them if that was what the Provincial wanted him to do.
On completion of his term as rector Jerry returned to Mukasa Minor Seminary to serve once more as headmaster (2005-2007). It was at this point that the running of the seminary was handed over to priests of Monze diocese after more than 40 years with Jesuits in charge. Jerry remained at Mukasa for a further year to help to effect a smooth transition.
It must have been with a sense of some relief that Jerry returned to Lusaka in 2008 to serve once more as chaplain at U.T.H. Instead of re-joining the St Ignatius community where the hospital chaplain had always lived he was asked to live at Luwisha House, much further away and involving a difficult daily journey and an early morning commute.
Uncomplaining as ever, he became a valued member of a vibrant, welcoming community blessed with many guests from within and without Zambia. Quiet, even reserved, he prayed a lot but also kept abreast of all that was going on. He would put his head round his afternoon newspaper to inquire about a visitor or some situation in the community. Well-informed and with his own definite opinions, he sometimes spoke of his family and especially of his parents.
Jerry had always been one to keep physically fit. As a young man, he enjoyed playing handball and hiking in the Dublin mountains. Later he played squash but tennis was the game at which he excelled. However a spinal problem in later life affected his neck and shoulders causing him to walk with a pronounced stoop. In 2013 he developed an eye problem and spent a year in Ireland seeking treatment. His only desire was to get back to Zambia – his Spartan lifestyle led him to resist the well-meaning efforts of Jesuits he lived with at Loyola in Dublin to taste something of the artistic life of the city.
In 2016, Jerry now grown older and less mobile, but still very apostolic, handed over the chaplaincy at U.T.H. to a younger Zambian Jesuit and himself became the first chaplain at the newly-opened Levy Mwanawasa General Hospital, not far from Luwisha House.
Unlike at U.T.H., there was no office for the chaplain – he had to keep his records in the boot of his car which became his office. Despite promises, no parking place was assigned to him – which upset him. Nevertheless, he diplomatically put up with this situation, often having to circle around to look for a place to park even though by now walking was difficult for him. He often explained that there had been provision in the hospital plans for a chaplain’s office but for some reason that office had either never been built or had not been assigned to him. During his years at Levy Jerry became more and more bent such that some people took him for a patient rather than the chaplain.
Jerry’s final visit to Ireland in 2018 was a mixed blessing. Due to a fall within a few days of arrival he spent the time between the hospital and the Province infirmary at Cherryfield. Plans to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of his ordination with family and friends did not materialise.
However, due to his prolonged stay, he was able to participate in the funeral Mass of his older brother John and meet those he had been unable to visit. His one great desire was to return to his beloved Zambia. Defying conventional medical wisdom he managed to return towards the end of 2019. He did not find life in the ZAM Province Infirmary at Chula House easy – not least because he accepted without complaint the ministrations of some over-zealous nurses. He was not comfortable with this situation but he was never one to complain.
At this time he used to chat regularly via Skype with his sister Jennie in Dublin. At one stage this arrangement broke down due to technical difficulties but some of the novices and their Socius, Fr Edson Hambayi, restored communication – much to Jerry’s delight. The day before he died Jerry asked one of the novices to WhatsApp Jennie and he had what proved to be his last chat with her. Always very regular about the day he called her, this was not his normal day to call. Jennie knew something was afoot. Looking back she guessed that he knew the end was near and wanted to say goodbye. He died peacefully on 17 November 2020.
Due to Covid restrictions, none of his family could travel for his funeral. However, they were consoled to follow on YouTube the vibrant, joyful, and reverent celebration of his Requiem Mass in Lusaka attended by those who had known and appreciated Jerry.
Some may at times have thought Jerry somewhat rigid in his behaviour but he always sought to do what was right and would not be deterred from what he knew to be the right thing to do. His dedication and keen sense of duty meant that he gave himself wholeheartedly to whatever he was asked to do, doing everything to the best of his ability.
Despite his matter-of-fact and cut-and-dried manner, Jerry was a humble and unassuming Jesuit who never sought for public acclaim. Quite happy to remain in the background, he was to those who knew him well a sensitive and caring person, warm-hearted, kind and considerate, as patients and staff at the U.T.H. knew so well.
In his later years, he found his greatest satisfaction and fulfilment in ministering to the sick. As one former seminarian put it: “he was loved by us seminarians and the entire staff at the Chaplain’s office… He gave such an inspiring witness of his love for God in his inspirational homilies and his self-sacrificing example of priestly ministry in his role as chaplain….” A prayerful person and deeply committed Jesuit and priest he surrendered himself to his Lord in the short illness that resulted in his sudden and unexpected death.
Peter Carroll SJ,