Some Seed Fell on Good Ground: The Life of Edwin V. O'Hara

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The decades following the close of the Second Vatican Council (1965) witnessed a mushrooming of movements and trends in America Catholic life: liturgical renewal, greater attention to the Bible, a more finely tuned sensitivity to social issues, and a redefining of goals and approaches in religious education are just a few of the activities that came to the fore in this period. Although he had died six years before the opening of that historic council, Edwin V. O'Hara (1881-1956) was a man far ahead of his time, whose half century of ceaseless activity as both priest and bishop sowed seeds that blossomed not only in his lifetime, but especially during those years after the council. Timothy Michael Dolan here examines the life of a remarkable churchman whose importance to the progress of the Catholic church in America is grossly underestimated. Driving O'Hara was the deep-rooted conviction that ignorance was the main enemy of the church's mission, followed closely by an institutional complacency hesitant to meet the challenges of the times. As an heir to the episcopal tradition of John Carroll, John England, John Hughes, James Gibbons, and John Ireland, O'Hara insisted that the Catholic church form and educate its people to take a normative role in society and also provide a model of coherent organization to bring the timeless message of the gospel to a world attracted to secular values. His activist approach to church leadership resulted in the passage of the first state minimum wage law (defended all the way to the Supreme Court), pioneer work in campus ministry, the formation of the National Catholic Rural Conference, and the advent of American Catholic agrarianism. Other organizations and movements O'Hara was instrumental in founding and promoting (which are now taken for granted) include the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) in the United States, the Catholic Biblical Association, the revision of the translation of Scripture that led to the New Ameri
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813207483
  • Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/1992
  • Pages: 300

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"Some Seed Fell on Good Ground"

THE LIFE OF Edwin V. O'Hara
By Timothy Michael Dolan

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 1992 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1949-3

Chapter One

The Early Years

Faith, family, farming, and learning, all guiding values throughout the seventy-five years of Edwin Vincent O'Hara's life, animated his formative years. Southeastern Minnesota, Fillmore County, in Amherst Township, 8 miles outside the village of Lanesboro, was the setting. In a stone farmhouse, the heart of the 320-acre family farm, Edwin Vincent was born to Owen and Margaret O'Hara on 6 September 1881, the eighth and last of their children.

Owen and Margaret O'Hara were fervent Catholics, who viewed the birth of their eighth child as the most recent sign of the Almighty's goodness to them. Yet, their blessings had not always been so evident, as their lives, like those of countless thousands of Irish immigrants of the same generation, had been characterized by sacrifice, struggle, and emigration. In the year 1881 they had a productive farm and eight healthy children and were respected in the Lanesboro community, the results of their faith, perseverance, and hard work.

This branch of O'Haras traced itself back to Drogheda, County Louth, in the east of Ireland. Owen himself had been born in that city on the River Boyne on 18 May 1840, to Peter and Bridget O'Hara. Fate has associated one word with the decade of the 1840s: famine. What has been called "the greatest human tragedy in peacetime history" caused the agonizing death of millions of Irish and forced hundreds of thousands of others desperately to seek survival in the United States. Among this throng of emaciated emigrants were Peter and Bridget O'Hara, with their three children, Owen, James, and Mary, all of whom left Ireland in 1847. They settled at first in Philadelphia; after three years they moved west, first to Brandywine, in western Pennsylvania, where Owen labored in the lumber mills, and then to Indiana. These years of migration, characterized by a lack of food, steady employment, and a permanent home, gave Owen O'Hara the strength, discipline, and frugality, tempered with compassion, that were to shape and to characterize his family.

Margaret's experience was not greatly different from Owen's. She, too, was born in Ireland, near Enniscorthy in County Wexford, on 11 June 1842, to Robert and Anne Doyle Nugent. Margaret's mother had been born in 1798 and had lost both her father and uncle in the bloodshed of that fateful year. The Nugents left impoverished Ireland with their only daughter in 1849, and settled first at Bellefontaine, Ohio. Margaret Nugent's early years were more stable than Owen's, since her father was a skillful tailor and earned enough at his trade to provide some security for his family, and the family saved enough to purchase a small home in Indiana, about eighteen miles from South Bend, on property adjoining the small farm owned by Peter and Bridget O'Hara. Margaret Nugent obtained sufficient formal education to allow her to be a teacher at Elkhart, Indiana, in the early Civil War years. Much of her schooling was a result of her association with the Holy Cross Fathers, who were renowned for their missionary work in Indiana. Margaret was privileged to know Edward Sorin, C.S.C., who had begun the congregation's work in America in October 1841. In the next century her son would proudly recall how she had benefited from the personal tutelage of Father Sorin, who had enrolled her in the theology class he taught to train catechists. Margaret used a daily prayerbook with which Sorin rewarded her proficiency, and under his direction she studied such works as John Milner's End of Controversy and George Hay's The Sincere Christian.

In the meantime, Owen O'Hara's family had found some stability on their farm in Indiana. Here Owen helped his father raise and sell livestock and began to develop his intellectual talent as his parents encouraged and directed his reading, especially the classics of English literature, and sent him to the schools then available. Family records show that one of the O'Hara customers for cattle in the 1850; was the Congregation of the Holy Cross. It seemed natural for Owen O'Hara and Margaret Nugent to keep company, since they were neighbors, Irish, Catholic, farmers, and fond of learning. This led to their marriage in April 1865 near Notre Dame, Indiana.

Owen and Margaret moved to nearby Plymouth, Indiana, and on their small rented farm their first two children were born: Peter, on 25 January 1866, and Robert, 10 June 1867. Owen wanted a larger, more productive farm. His skill with livestock, industry, and reputation for integrity, paralleled by Margaret's talent for producing all the cloth the family needed and thrifty household management, allowed them to save enough to buy their own farm. They had heard that the bishop of Dubuque, Mathias Loras, had urged Catholic families to settle on the rich soil of his state, and so both the younger and older O'Hara families left Indiana for Marshalltown, Iowa, where a Catholic farm settlement had begun. Stopping in Woodstock, Illinois, however, they heard from other travelers about the attractions of Minnesota, from which the Indians had been evicted, thereby opening vast areas of fresh land, abundant in timber and water. They decided to journey north. First they stopped in Spring Valley, where they heard that the Harriet Miller farm of 320 acres just outside Lanesboro was available at an affordable price. There they settled in 1870, in the farm that would be owned by O'Haras for sixty-two years.

Now that Owen and Margaret had finally settled down, they devoted their energy to establishing a home. Six children were born that next decade: Mary Genevieve (20 October 1870), Anna Gertrude (31 July 1872), James (6 June 1874), Owen Frank (24 March 1876), John Patrick (17 November 1878), and Edwin Vincent (6 September 1881). The parents took delight in their farm, which they considered a splendid place to raise a family. The cool northern air, plentiful rain, lush green fields, and the rocky terrain reminded them of Ireland, and the children often heard their parents and grandparents reminisce about the mother country. Another advantage of the farm was that it allowed for diversification. Accordingly, Owen allotted some acres for barley, a quantity for wheat, a section for corn, and a garden to raise a few vegetables to help feed the family. However, he reserved most of the acreage for the grazing of cattle and horses. Although conservative about the essentials of agriculture, Owen O'Hara was interested in experimentation with new ideas and methods. Always eager to read the latest literature or see the most advanced tool, he gained a reputation as a "scientific farmer" and even developed a herd of seventy-five shorthorn cattle, the first such in the state. Owen's blend of prudent caution about the basics with an eagerness for new plans would later often exhibit itself in the style of his youngest son.

The greatest attraction of the farm, even above the material security it ensured, was the environment it provided their eight children. They were never wealthy, but they were comfortable and healthy. Family solidarity was rich, fostered by the recreation of fishing, walking, swimming, and riding and the satisfaction of the demanding physical effort of operating a farm. Edwin, even as the youngest, had such duties, welcoming his chores as what he would later call "purposeful education." Whether guiding a team of five horses on the gangplow, perching high on a binder driving a six-horse team along the low wall of standing grain, or tending to the simpler tasks of butchering, sowing, or feeding, Edwin faithfully joined his parents in farm work. Never did he regret the diligence, obedience, and self-discipline, the reverence for family and nature, nurtured on the land.

Owen and Margaret, however, realized that such virtues, valuable as they might be, must be fortified by two necessities: formal religion and structured education. Rural Minnesota provided neither on an organized basis. The O'Haras never relied on others to solve a problem, and that self-reliance was another lesson Edwin mastered. Accordingly, they donated a corner acre of their farm as land for a new schoolhouse, which became known as the O'Hara School, in District 29. As Edwin would later describe it: "In the one-room, ungraded school, where the teacher struggled with fifty pupils between the ages of five and fifteen, we learned to read with facility and comprehension the contents of the texts provided by the classics in history, civics, and hygiene, and by our school and home library.

All of the O'Hara children attended; Edwin began his schooling there in 1888 at seven years of age. After Lanesboro Public High School opened in town, Owen and Margaret had the satisfaction of seeing all their children graduate. Edwin attended the secondary school from 1895 to 1897.

Recalling that Margaret was herself a teacher before she married and that Owen had mastered literary works on his own, it is not surprising that they emphasized learning in their home. Each evening the children were called on to recite their lessons, and their parents supplemented their formal learning with private instruction and supervised reading from the family library. Mr. O'Hara could recite sections of Homer's Iliad and Pope's Essay on Man from memory, and the couple instilled in the children a fondness for poetry, history, and literature.

Owen and Margaret's insistence on sound education was reflected by the academic, professional, business, and religious achievements of their children. Peter, the oldest, who distinguished himself as a businessman, moved to North Dakota and prospered in horse breeding. Married to Nellie Sheehan, he raised a family and died at seventy-two in 1938.

Robert, one of the first boys from Lanesboro ever to pursue higher education, first attended St. Thomas College in St. Paul and then the University of Notre Dame. In 1889, the very year Montana was admitted to the union, he moved there and was qualified as one of the state's first attorneys. Mary Genevieve followed Robert to Hamilton, Montana, where she taught in the first school of the town. In 1900, she entered the convent of the Poor Clares in Omaha, Nebraska, as Sister Mary Patricia; she served there as abbess until her death on 3 October 1946. Anna Gertrude also taught in both the O'Hara Public School and the Hamilton school. She dedicated most of her life, especially after the death of her husband, Raymond Daniels, to service to her brother, Edwin, and was the last of the children to die, on 1 July 1962.

James sacrificed his personal desire to become a lawyer to care for the family farm. When his father died in 1904, James was the oldest boj7 at home, and he administered the O'Hara land well. He married Anna Waden and raised his family on the farm.

Owen, always called by his second name, Frank, became Banigan Professor of Political Economy at The Catholic University of America. Frank received his higher education at the University of Minnesota, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Berlin. Besides teaching in Washington, D.C., he lectured at Notre Dame, edited Catholic Progress in Seattle and Catholic Rural Life for the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, and wrote a textbook, Introduction to Economics.

John also pursued an academic career. Following the family precedent of college at St. Thomas, he took his bachelor's degree in history at the University of Notre Dame and then did graduate work at the University of Paris. He, too, edited a paper, The Catholic Sentinel of Oregon, and wrote The History of the United States, published in 1919.

Dominating all of Owen and Margaret's concerns was their desire to rear their children as good Catholics. As they had supplemented their children's primitive school lessons with their own tutoring, they assumed the duties of training them in the rudiments of Christian doctrine. Edwin later spoke of family recitation of the rosary, his father's reading aloud passages from the Gospels, and family devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus: "The most impressive religious memory of my own childhood on a farm home was the lovely picture of the Sacred Heart in an honored position in a quiet room. There the members of the family, following the example of our mother, took occasion of leisure moments to retire for a period of personal prayer under the sad but kindly and loving eyes of Christ." It fell to Margaret, Father Sorin's prize catechist, to instruct her children in the essentials of the faith. She prepared each for his or her first confession, first Holy Communion, and confirmation.

Fervent as the religious atmosphere of the O'Hara home was, the parents realized that the family needed the support of a priest, regular reception of the sacraments, and a parish. When they arrived in Lanesboro in 1870, they had found the scattered Catholic farm families a distinct minority, trailing in numbers and prestige the more dominant Norwegian Lutherans and Scottish Presbyterians. There was no established parish, and records show that the Catholics of the region were periodically visited by priests from Wisconsin and later from Winona. The Catholic Directory of 1869 records that Preston, Minnesota, had a resident pastor, James Halton. Although Lanesboro was not listed as a mission of Preston, Carlton was; therefore, it is probable that the Lanesboro Catholics benefited from periodic visits by Father Halton. Other records show that Mass was occasionally offered in Catholic homes in nearby Chatfield. It was in this latter town that a parish was established in 1871, and Lanesboro was designated as a mission with Father William Riordan as first pastor. When Father Riordan did visit town, he used the schoolhouse in Lanesboro to offer Mass, but the local Catholics wanted a church of their own, and in 1871 they began to build St. Patrick's Church. Most of the labor was donated, as was the furnishing. The O'Hara family contributed the statue of St. Joseph.

In 1875 St. Patrick's became an established parish and Father Louis Cornelius its pastor. In 1881 a new pastor was appointed and was to serve the parish for forty-one years: the colorful and beloved James Coyne. On 2 October 1881, the pastor christened Edwin Vincent O'Hara; a neighbor, Walter Keenan, and his aunt, Bridget Alice Toomey, were his godparents.

Father Coyne not only baptized Edwin but influenced him considerably during these formative years. The priest had been born in 1841, in County Roscommon, Ireland; after ordination, he served as a professor of mathematics at St. Patrick's College, Maynooth. There he responded to the request of Bishop John Ireland that priests from Eire go to the United States where there was a desperate need of clergy. As soon as Coyne arrived in St. Paul in 1880, the grateful Bishop Ireland, coadjutor to Bishop Thomas L. Grace, O.P., appointed him to Lanesboro. When the Diocese of Winona was established in 1889, the first bishop, Joseph B. Cotter, appointed Coyne as his vicar-general.

James Coyne was the first priest Edwin ever knew. Although he at times seemed aloof and rigid, the parishoners admired his piety, scholarship, and wisdom. They were proud of their pastor and considered his stern moral approach necessary to establish religion in the young town. He insisted that each family in the parish have at least a representative at Sunday Mass, since he realized that distance, weather, and poor roads made it almost impossible for entire families to attend Mass every Sunday. Owen O'Hara made sure that at least one member of the family attended the sabbath Mass, and as often as possible the entire family boarded the wagon for the arduous nine-mile trek into town, a journey that usually took an hour and a half.

On Sundays after Mass the children attended catechism classes taught by adult volunteers of the parish. Father Coyne himself examined them for the reception of the sacraments. He especially insisted on thorough knowledge of the faith for confirmation and condensed the catechism into his own "forty questions." Coyne drilled the students on these questions for weeks before they received the sacrament. Edwin later recalled, "I have memories of coming into town on a haywagon and hastily going up to church on the hill about four o'clock in the afternoon for an examination in preparation for confirmation the following morning. Bishop Cotter confirmed us. I still remember the bishop talking to us as he was seated in the sanctuary. He seemed to us a very kind and gracious personage.

It must have been the same occasion when the bishop asked one of the children a question on a point of doctrine. The child, perplexed, shrugged and answered, "I'm sorry, but that's not one of Father Coyne's forty questions!" Bishop O'Hara often used this anecdote during his own confirmation ceremonies in later years.

Edwin was attracted to another program of religious education, the summer Vacation Bible School conducted bv the Lutherans of the town. Relations among the denominations had always been harmonious in Lanesboro, and Owen approved of John's and Edwin's attending these classes. Father Cope tolerated the practice as long as the classes considered Scripture and not doctrine.

By the age of thirteen Edwin had outgrown the family schoolhouse; he entered Lanesboro High School in fall 1894. During the harsh winter months he stayed in town during the week and returned home on Saturday to help with chores. In the autumn and spring he rode horseback the nine miles in and back each day. His classmates remembered him as a good student, a cheerful companion, and a serious participant in classroom debates and discussions.

During the icy months, when he resided in town, he came to know Father Coyne more personally. While attending Mass daily during the week before classes, he mentioned his attraction to the priesthood to the pastor. Coyne arranged for Edwin to visit the rectory after school to supplement his course in Latin and to begin the study of Greek, both of which would be essential should he enter the seminary.

By Christmas 1897 Edwin had absorbed all the local high school could teach him. His brothers had attended the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul and Owen O'Hara considered it the best place to combine sound learning and Catholic formation. Father Coyne agreed, and so, for the second semester of the 1897–1898 academic year Edwin sided at the college to prepare for his formal entrance the next September. He returned in June to graduate with his classmates at Lanesboro High School, the "class of '98," and, after a summer of work on the farm, on his seventeenth birthday he left to become a full-time student at the College of St. Thomas.


Excerpted from "Some Seed Fell on Good Ground" by Timothy Michael Dolan Copyright © 1992 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Abbreviations Used within the Text
1 The Early Years 1
2 A Priest in Oregon 18
3 O'Hara's Rural Philosophy and Program 58
4 O'Hara's New Rural Organizations 81
5 Bishop of Great Falls 111
6 O'Hara and the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine 126
7 The Revisionist Bishop 156
8 Apostle of Justice and Peace 185
9 Bishop of Kansas City 217
Conclusion 241
Essay on Sources 247
Notes 261
Index 295
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