Research confirms Phila.-born prelate's Jewish roots

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani greets Cardinal John O'Connor on the steps of New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral during the St. Patrick's Day Parade Monday, March 17, 1997. (AP Photo/Richard Drew/File)

Score a big hit - and a tip of the yarmulke - for persistent sleuthing to Mary O'Connor Ward-Donegan, 87, of Ridley Park, the youngest sister of Cardinal John J. O'Connor, the dynamic former Catholic archbishop of New York.

Ward-Donegan used the family-tree tracing service - and her own dogged research - to unearth a fact even her now-deceased brother apparently never knew:

Their mother was born Jewish.

Hebraic law holds that any child born of a Jewish mother is a Jew. That means O'Connor, an influential prelate who for six years led the nation's second-largest archdiocese, could be considered one, too.

"I think it might interest some people to look into their own roots. You think you know, but -," said Ward-Donegan, her voice trailing off, Wednesday in the parlor of her small brick house, ignoring incessant phone calls that reflected national interest in her discovery.

The road to her extraordinary find began in 2012, when Ward-Donegan received a subscription to the genealogical research service as a Mother's Day gift from her youngest daughter.

Eileen Christian, a lawyer for a Chester County title insurance company, had been looking around online, researching the O'Connor family roots in preparation for a trip to Ireland. She figured that her mother, who retired two years ago as a paralegal in Media, had the computer skills to enjoy the gift.

Christian's research took her as far back as Gustav Gumpel, her great-grandfather and Ward-Donegan's grandfather. He was a Prussian immigrant who came to New York in the 19th century and eventually settled in Connecticut. Coming up dry on a trace of Gumpel's wife, whose maiden name appeared to be Tina Ruben, Christian handed off that part of the research to her mother.

"Eileen e-mailed me and said she had come across my grandfather buried in a Jewish cemetery" in Fairfield, Conn., owned by the Bridgeport synagogue B'nai Israel, said Ward-Donegan, who never knew her grandparents.

So she set off for the cemetery, hoping to find a trace of her grandmother there, too.

"It was a wonderful, rainy day, and we were traipsing through the cemetery," said Ward-Donegan, who was joined by two friends, Sisters of Life nuns from an order founded by her brother.

"We found [the grave of] Gustav," who apparently worked as a kosher butcher, said Ward-Donegan, recalling that all but the name on his tombstone was in Hebrew. "We had a heck of a time finding my grandmother."

Then they spotted Tina Gumpel's grave, a marble stone etched with flowers.

"All it said," in English, was "Tina Ruben, wife of Gustav Gumpel," Ward-Donegan said.

Her subsequent research affirmed that Gustav's wife was Jewish.

"At the time that my grandmother died, 1890," Ward-Donegan said, "they would not have buried anyone in a Jewish cemetery unless they were Jewish."

Because her grandmother was Jewish, that meant Ward-Donegan's mother, Dorothy, could be considered a Jew, as well as her five children, including the cardinal. None of them had ever known it.

Ward-Donegan took her discovery to Mother Agnes Donovan, mother superior of the Sisters of Life, who agreed they should ask the current archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, how to proceed.

After satisfying himself that the find was genuine, Ward-Donegan said, Dolan asked her to break the news with a first-person article in the May 1, 2014, edition of the biweekly  newspaper Catholic New York.

"I came to know our family story in a completely new way," Ward-Donegan wrote. "Our dear mother was Jewish."

On Tuesday, the New York Times published the story with staff coverage, triggering international headlines and setting Ward-Donegan's phone ringing off the hook with well-wishers and interview requests.

On Thursday, she is scheduled to be interviewed in Ridley Park by the legendary New York newsman Gabe Pressman, 90, who interviewed her brother many times for WNBC-TV.

A devout Catholic, Ward-Donegan attends the 8:30 a.m. Mass everyday at St. Madeline's Church in Ridley Park. That won't change, she said.

Her first husband, Hugh Ward, died in 1983; in May she married her longtime friend and neighbor, Francis Donegan. The couple are merging their households.

Seated next to a table and one of her brother's Mass cards, Ward-Donegan, who was his junior by seven years, recalled the family's early days in Philadelphia, and her brother's career.

John Joseph O'Connor, who was born Jan. 15, 1920, in Southwest Philadelphia, was known to his friends as "Okie." He died May 3, 2000.

"At his funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral, something like seven rabbis spoke," Ward-Donegan said. "One of them said, 'He was not just your shepherd. He was ours, too.' That touched me very deeply."

He always had a job, she said. As a boy he parked his wagon at a grocery store on Elmwood Avenue and earned nickels helping patrons lug their groceries home. He delivered telegrams by bicycle and ran a bike repair shop in the basement of the family's home.

The family worshipped at St. Clement's Church, near 72d Street and Woodland Avenue, Ward-Donegan said, and her brother "always wanted to be a priest. . . . He had a deep religious faith."

He was ordained Dec. 15, 1945, taught at St. James High School in Chester, lived at the rectory of St. Gabriel's Church in Norwood, and left in 1952 for a military career.

He spent 27 years as a chaplain with the Navy and Marines.

"I have pictures of him saying Mass on the hood of a jeep" in Vietnam, Ward-Donegan said.

In June 1983 he was installed as bishop of Scranton; 10 months later he became archbishop of New York. On March 25, 1985, he was elevated to cardinal.

Asked how her discovery has changed her, Ward-Donegan didn't hesitate.

"Jesus Christ and the Blessed Mother. I can't think of better ancestors," she said. "And they were Jews."

215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1