New York Cardinal's Jewish mother

Cardinal John O

The late New York Cardinal, John O'Connor, was born of a Jewish mother and had a rabbi grandfather, writes Alison Leigh Cowan at The New York Times.

In his 16 years as the Church's top official in New York, Cardinal John Joseph O'Connor was a staunch friend and defender of the Jewish people.

He spoke often about what he had seen at Dachau as a Navy chaplain. He used his platform as head of the Archdiocese of New York to support Soviet Jewry, and played a role in the Vatican's recognition of the State of Israel. Mayor Edward I. Koch, a Bronx-born Jew who worked closely with the Cardinal, proclaimed that he loved him 'like a brother.'

Yet there was something Cardinal O'Connor apparently never knew: His mother was born a Jew, the daughter of a rabbi.

'The basic fact is, my mother was Jewish,' said Mary O'Connor Ward-Donegan, the Cardinal's 87-year-old sister. Observing the Jewish matrilineal tradition, she added, 'That means my two brothers were Jewish, my sister was Jewish and I am Jewish. Of that I am very proud.'

So far, there is no indication that the Cardinal, who died in 2000, knew about his lineage. His mother, Dorothy, a devout Catholic who died in 1971, told her children little about her upbringing, Mrs Ward-Donegan said.

The first hint that her mother had been born in a Jewish home came when Mrs Ward-Donegan's daughter, Eileen Ward Christian, spotted some headstones online, including some inscribed in Hebrew.

Though Mrs Ward-Donegan had thought her mother's maiden name was spelled Gomple or Gumple, she eventually realised that she was seeking family members named Gumpel. The headstones her daughter happened upon were for Gustave Gumpel and Tina Ruben, 'wife of Gustave Gumpel,' the couple Mrs Ward-Donegan now knows as her Prussian-born maternal grandparents. They were in a Jewish cemetery in Fairfield, Conn., owned by the Bridgeport synagogue B'nai Israel.

- Alison Leigh Cowan

The Rabbi O'Connor Never Knew: His Grandfather (The New York Times)

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