Character of Father Charles O'Donnell. Excerpts from his correspondence. His sickness and death.
WE REALIZE that the judgment of future writers may differ considerably from our own. We live so closely to the men and events we describe that we undoubtedly lack the perspective necessary for correct appraisal. That does not, however, excuse us from trying to evaluate persons and things at their true worth. Our judgment of Father Charles O'Donnell has been gathered from sources very close to him, not trusting altogether our own experience for, although we knew him well, we were not an intimate.
Indeed, he had few intimate friends. He was, we think, a man who longed for closer ties, especially with members of his own religious family but something in the man's nature prevented the easy familiarity, the hearty good fellowship, which begets a large number of close friends.
Perhaps his closest friend was George Finnigan. When Father Finnigan was rector of Holy Cross Seminary, Father O'Donnell was Provincial. Between the two priests there was the most cordial exchange of ideas and sentiments. Oddly enough, they were very different in temperament. George Finnigan was excessively active, buoyant and gay; whereas, Charles O'Donnell was more of an introvert, critical -- even self-critical -- and at times moody. Father O'Donnell profited greatly by this friendship, for George Finnigan's light-hearted cheerfulness drove away the clouds that often depressed O'Donnell's spirit.
When George Finnigan was made Bishop of Helena in August, 1927, Father O'Donnell was by turns glad and saddened. It meant the end of that continuous intimacy from which Father O'Donnell had derived so much strength and satisfaction. Contacts were maintained by occasional visits and correspondence. Most often, when Charles O'Donnell wrote the Bishop, he dispensed with his secretary, so we have copies of very few of his letters to Bishop Finnigan. The friendship ended tragically when Father O'Donnell was in northern Wisconsin on a fishing trip. News was flashed to him that the Bishop of Helena had died very suddenly. He left at once for the west and returned to Notre Dame with the Bishop's body. The day they laid Bishop George Finnigan beneath the pines in the Community cemetery, Charles O'Donnell left half his heart in that grave.
In his letters Father O'Donnell often displayed a playful, sometimes a biting humour. There was a friend of his, a Bishop, who suggested that very likely the shadow of the purple would soon fall on him. Father O'Donnell wrote:
I have but two ambitions left in this world: one is a quiet corner somewhere, where I can alternate between the Breviary and detective stories, and the other is to get rid of gas in the transverse colon. I ask your pardon for thus laying bare my soul to you, but you have brought this on yourself.
Once an intimate acquaintance of Father O'Donnell notified him that a very famous educator was about to set out for the Middle West and desired to call at Notre Dame. It was in August when nearly everyone was away from the University and, practically speaking, there was hardly any one around except some workmen, most of whom were of foreign extraction. Father O'Donnell sighed as he answered:
All the intellectuals are out of here. The good man has picked a bad time to visit Notre Dame. However, if he stops, somebody that can speak broken English at least will be here to steer him around.
To one of his fellow priests, went a letter urging him to come to Notre Dame as a faculty member during the next summer session. As a further inducement, Father O'Donnell added:
We shall be happy to have you on the front porch again. At no time does Father need chastening more than during the summer session, when he receives so much flattering attention from the devoted nuns. I shouldn't be surprised if he were at work on a new book. He is, in some sense, a man of mystery, but a joyful kind of mystery.
In the same letter Father O'Donnell includes a savory little anecdote concerning Father Moses McGarry, a venerable patriarch who lived countless years among us, growing old and deaf and very blind. He was a man of singular innocence and humility, and he loved the young. When Father Matthew Walsh was dangerously ill of pneumonia in the spring of 1929, Father McGarry worried about him endlessly. Father O'Donnell writes:
Father Walsh said Mass yesterday for the first time since his sickness. Father McGarry took him for a drive in the afternoon. In honor of the occasion the Reverend Moses put on a Prince Albert coat. He was seated in the automobile before he discovered he had forgotten to put on a collar.
Over at St. Mary's College there is a small body of water which in a gracious euphemism is sometimes called a lake. There is water in it, but hardly more than would slake the thirst of two frogs and four blue-gills. The girls took little interest in this minute body of water but they did desire to play golf on the newly opened course at Notre Dame. Through their superior, Sister Eleanore, they asked for permission. Such an important matter would have to be taken up by the University Council, Father O'Donnell answered. In a few days, he wrote:
The hemming and hawing took place at our Council Meeting yesterday.
As a result, I have to inform you reluctantly that your girls may not swing a niblick on our golf course, at least for the present. The reason for this decision seems to be, in a general way, the same reason which Rome so often gives -- Non Expedit.
The real reason, which I do not mind giving you unofficially and confidentially, is that you have never allowed our boys to go boating on your lake.
Of quite a different stamp were some of his other utterances. There was nothing playful about him when he was aroused. A great many men have a faculty for absorbing criticism or abuse. They brush it off, laugh at it, or let it pass without notice. Father O'Donnell did not have this gift. When the University was criticized, especially in print, something vitriolic usually followed from the presidential pen. Such a reaction was very often justified. In many instances, however, particularly in the case of sport-writers, it is suspected that they enjoyed pecking at Notre Dame because they felt sure that Father O'Donnell would rise to the bait and furnish good copy.
Two well known writers, Westbrook Pegler and Paul Gallico, were often in Father O'Donnell's scalding kettle. Pegler sneered that Notre Dame, as a University, was known for nothing but its football. Gallico wrote that he was weary of hearing about Notre Dame championships and suggested that if Notre Dame was tired of being known for nothing but its football, there was an easy way out: Fire the coach. Father O'Donnell often replied in a sarcastic vein, accusing the gentlemen of ignorance of the University. To recite the glory of Girac's music or Gregori's art, or the scientific discoveries of Zahm, Green and Nieuwland would have been wasted effort.
It was bad enough to get this kind of thing from Americans, but when an Englishman followed in the lists, it was like vinegar in fresh wounds. Early in 1932, The Saturday Review carried an article by John Boyd-Carpenter entitled "A Briton Looks at American Education." He was critical of nearly all American universities, certain ones excepted, and of them, he said they were not really American. Of Notre Dame, he wrote:
For instance, the University of Notre Dame, a place of no particular intellectual pretensions, has enjoyed recently a great reputation simply because its football team was not, for a long time, defeated by any of the teams it chose to meet.
Father O'Donnell was filled with cold anger. He got out his sword and hacked Boyd-Carpenter to small bits. This answer, which appeared in the Review on May 7,1932, was, to put it mildly, rather vehement. Shane Leslie read it in Ireland and wrote to Father O'Donnell praising him for it. In reply, the president said:
The letter itself looks pretty savage in print. I never quite learned Father Hudson's art of softening things, though I worked with him for many years.
Father O'Donnell was inclined to take consolation in the thought that so much criticism of the University probably meant that Notre Dame was not doing so badly after all. He came to feel that there was not much use in answering these cheap gibes. "The truth is, of course, the people capable of this sort of thing will not be set right. In most cases of persecution, the victim is hated for his virtues. I am convinced that, if Catholics had not served with so much distinction in the world War, their Americanism would never have been attacked by the Ku Klux Klan."
What he held up his sleeve for the Abbé Dimnet was a really cold icicle. The following letter was written to an agency which had inquired if Notre Dame would care to have Abbé Dimnet appear for a lecture:
We are not interested in lectures by the Abbé Dimnet. On the occasion of the Abbés former visit here, he was received with every courtesy. It has been a mystery to us to discover that he goes out of his way in The Art of Thinking, to misrepresent the University of Notre Dame.
On one occasion a very prominent non-Catholic was invited to give the Commencement address. He acquitted himself very creditably. Everyone was well satisfied. Imagine Father O'Donnell's surprise the following week when he found an editorial in a Catholic paper condemning the University for employing a cheap publicity stunt by inviting this speaker, well known in industrial and political circles, and condemning the speaker for having omitted the mention of God. The charge was so wanton that Father O'Donnell wrote to the editor:
Naturally, we do not relish being stabbed in the back by a Catholic paper. Even if we were at fault, some measure of charity might be expected from those within the household of the Faith.
As it happens, however, your writer's attack leaves something to be desired on the score of simple justice. He (or she) makes it appear that the only address given to our graduates was that made by the speaker in question.
As for the speaker's address, I submit that the humility and charity which are so remarkably evident in it have a source that is not merely of the material world, though your writer is strangely blind to this.
Leaving this aside, however, by what law must a commencement speaker make reference to the Deity? . . . Is there something intrinsically wrong with such procedure? Certainly, the two Bishops who on the stage at Notre Dame enthusiastically approved the address. Doctor James J. Walsh who in another column of your paper is cited approvingly as a Catholic apologist wrote to me of the address in terms of unmeasured praise.
I do not ask and do not wish that this letter should be published. I simply want you to know that I think one of your staff has done an ill service to the Catholic cause in taking the obscurantist position to which this letter respectfully directs your attention.
The mordant quality of these letters is considerably discounted by the recollection that Father O'Donnell was not only temperamentally brittle, but also that he was a sick man. A streptococcus infection first settled in Father O'Donnell's throat in 1931. It traveled to his ear and produced a partial deafness. Treatment for this disorder seemed to produce some relief, but in the winter of 1932-1933 he was quite ill and spent considerable time in the infirmary and in the hospital.
In the spring of 1933 it was thought that an ocean voyage might clear up the infection. At first Father O'Donnell planned a boat trip from New York to San Francisco, but later abandoned that long journey in favor of a boat trip from New York to Galveston. On his return he stopped off at Washington to witness Franklin Roosevelt's first inauguration. When he returned to Notre Dame at the end of March, he was again suffering.
I am writing this letter in the Infirmary, propped up in bed, a hot-water bottle at my back, and at least seven devils of infection running riot through my nose and throat.
He later became much worse, as appears from the following letter to the widow of Joyce Kilmer:
After the fog cleared away, I found your note written in early April. Actually, for the first two or three weeks, fever and drugs cut me off from everything and everybody. I received the Last Sacraments and was ready to die, in that half-cracked fashion common, I suppose, to sick people who are only on the borderland of consciousness. Now, at the end of six weeks, I am interested in ham and eggs for breakfast.
Commencement in June 1933 found Father O'Donnell just able to be up. He sat on the stage for the exercises, but his appearance was enough to strike every heart with sorrow. It had been suggested that a trip to Europe might be just what he needed, but his superiors thought the journey too risky. He wrote to a fellow-priest: "I am actually relieved because in my present debilitated state, the travel involved would be a real hardship." Instead of a trip to Europe, he and his secretary, Tom McNicholas, went fishing at a lake in northern Michigan. Even this proved too exhausting. On his return, his doctors in Chicago advised him to try a month's rest on the seashore. Accordingly, he left for New York where, suddenly, he developed a constant dizziness that made travel impossible. A friend of his suggested that he enter the Medical Center and have the doctors go over him thoroughly.
After two weeks there it was discovered that I had in the intestines the same kind of streptococci infection which appeared in my throat months before, and was now responsible for the dizziness and everything else. The treatment for this is a serum injected into the veins. I was sent back to the hospital here in South Bend, where the serum is to be administered as soon as it can be prepared. During all this time, it has been impossible to read or to write, and I can walk only by hanging on to the furniture.
Late in 1933 the doctors sent him to the Mayo Clinic.
Your letter was forwarded to me to Rochester, where the Mayo gentlemen punctured my spine, took out my tonsils, and loaded me with serum, to say nothing of other indignities. I came back to the hospital in South Bend last week, and am leaving here tomorrow for Sr. Francis' Hospital, Miami Beach, Florida, where it is hoped the climate and other accessories will enable me to walk again.
On the journey southward, Father John McGinn was his companion. In the warm sunshine of Florida Father O'Donnell seemed to be recovering. He managed to get out now and then. His letters to Notre Dame were cheerful and seemed to indicate bright prospects for a cure. He began to get anxious for home. He arrived at Notre Dame on the last day of April, 1934. He was in such an utter state of exhaustion, that he was sent to the hospital next day. To Aline Kilmer, Tom McNicholas sent the following telegram on May 26th:
Father O'Donnell gravely ill, and the end is expected any time. Returned from Florida paralyzed in one leg. Condition grew steadily worse and went to the hospital May 1st. Paralysis spread to hips and doctors gave up hope. Has had many bad days, but at this moment is worse than ever. Very irrational at times, but again becomes very clear.
Father O'Donnell's good friend, Father Eugene Burke, went to the hospital to tell Father O'Donnell that the end was near. He did it gently, but Father O'Donnell seemed a bit surprised and asked him bluntly: "Am I going to die?" "Yes, Charley, you are going to die."
The Commencement of 1934 occurred on June 3rd. On the stage were several prominent figures -- the Apostolic Delegate, Most Reverend Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Governor Paul McNutt, and Frank C. Walker. Over all the exercises, however, hung the pall of expectant death. Father O'Hara spoke to the alumni:
It is with more than the reluctance of modesty that I venture to address you this evening. The President's address to the Alumni is a duty to be performed, but I know that I speak for you all as well as for myself when I say that there is pain in our hearts when we turn our thoughts to the one who should be here tonight to welcome you.
Only sober duty can keep us away from the hospital tonight, from that bedside where Father O'Donnell, brilliant poet, devoted priest, and great President of a great University, lies awaiting the summons that all of us must answer when and where God wills.
His heart is warmed by your presence here tonight, for although he cannot be on hand to greet you, he knows that your presence once more at Notre Dame means prayers that will ease his passing and glorify his entrance into the eternal kingdom of God.
In the early morning of June 4th, the day after Commencement, Father O'Donnell died calmly and with no struggle.
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