A statue of an angel appears to stand guard over the small chapel containing the tomb of Cardinal William O’Connell. Pilot file photo/ Gregory L. Tracy
If a request by the archdiocese and Boston College is granted, the body of one its most historically influential leaders could be moved to a suburban prep school, against wishes he expressed in his will.
In mid-September, the Archdiocese of Boston and Boston College jointly filed a petition with the Probate and Family Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to relocate Cardinal William O’Connell’s remains from the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on the former grounds of St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, to St. Sebastian’s School in Needham. The petition to relocate is required by state law.
“Establishing Cardinal O’Connell’s permanent resting place at St. Sebastian’s will provide current and future generations the opportunity to gain an appreciation of Cardinal O’Connell’s significant contributions to the life of the Catholic Church,” Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley said. “Through this memorial, we will be able to ensure that the Cardinal’s many achievements as Archbishop of Boston will always be remembered and honored.”
In 2004 and 2007, the archdiocese reached agreement with Boston College for the purchase and sale of property from the archdiocese’s Brighton campus. A condition of the sale of the property to BC was the relocation of Cardinal O’Connell’s body. As a result of the sale, BC now owns the property on which O’Connell’s burial ground sits as well as surrounding acreage. St. John’s Seminary is still archdiocesan property.
“By way of extensive consultation and collaboration with all parties, we have worked diligently to resolve the issue of relocating the remains of Cardinal O’Connell,” archdiocesan chancellor Jim McDonough said. “It is our desire to be respectful of the late Cardinal and his heirs, faithful to our Catholic ministry, and mindful of our obligation with Boston College, and to do so in a manner that commemorates Cardinal O’Connell’s life and achievements.”
The move comes after BC won city approval to develop the area as the school’s Brighton campus.
“Out of respect for the late cardinal, we do not think that it would be appropriate to have a gravesite on a college campus, especially on a site in close proximity to a proposed parking facility,” BC spokesman Jack Dunn said.
The archdiocese chose to relocate the late cardinal’s remains to St. Sebastian’s because Cardinal O’Connell founded the school in 1941 in Newton. The school has been in Needham since 1983.
“We would be honored to have him,” said St. Sebastian’s headmaster Bill Burke.
The cardinal’s legacy is already honored at the school, as his portrait is one of three that hangs in the school’s dining room. Further, the school annually awards a Founder’s Medal to honor his name. In the future, the school will award a need-based, Cardinal O’Connell scholarship.
St. Sebastian’s is a Catholic, independent day school that enrolls 350 boys in Grades 7 through 12.
However, the late Cardinal, in his will, states, “I direct that my funeral obsequies be as simple as possible and that I be buried in the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin on the grounds of St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, Massachusetts.”
Edward Kirk, great nephew of Cardinal O’Connell, a practicing attorney from Centerville, says that members of the family will challenge the ruling.
“It’s my estimation that we’ll be filing our opposition to the complaint that has been filed,” Kirk said.
Kirk’s brother, Paul, was at one time the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and an aide to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
When asked about whether the late cardinal should remain at his current site, Kirk said, “That’s the basic position of a lot of us. We think that’s where he wanted to be and where we think he should stay.”
The historical significance of the tomb has drawn attention from the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
Cardinal O’Connell was the fifth bishop and second Archbishop of Boston, from 1907 to 1944. He was also Boston’s first cardinal.