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Fairfield cemetery reveals Cardinal O'Connor's Jewish heritage

Alison Leigh Cowan, New York Times
Updated 11:42 pm, Tuesday, June 10, 2014
  • New York's Cardinal John J. O'Connor raises his hands near New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, March 17, 1993 during the annual St. Patrick's Day parade. Photo: MONIKA GRAFF, AP Photo/Monika Graff / Associated Press
    New York's Cardinal John J. O'Connor raises his hands near New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, March 17, 1993 during the annual St. Patrick's Day parade. Photo: MONIKA GRAFF, AP Photo/Monika Graff

 

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BRIDGEPORT -- In his 16 years as the Catholic 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 Ed Koch, a Bronx-born Jew who worked closely with the cardinal, proclaimed that he loved him "like a brother."

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

The saga emerged in recent weeks, first in the April 30 issue of Catholic New York in a first-person essay by Ward-Donegan, who had been searching for information about her forebears. The revelation set off a storm of genealogical research by the religious press, including Jewish Week, which called upon Renee Stern Steinig, an expert in Jewish genealogy, to connect some dots.

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, according to Ward-Donegan.

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

Though Ward-Donegan had thought her mother's maiden name was spelled Gomple or Gumple, she eventually realized 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 Ward-Donegan now knows as her Prussian-born maternal grandparents. They were in a Jewish cemetery on King's Highway in Fairfield owned by Bridgeport synagogue B'nai Israel.

Other clues to the grandparents' religious identity, culled from B'nai Israel's archives and other sources scoured by Steinig, made a strong case that Gustave Gumpel was both rabbi to B'nai Israel and butcher to the German-Jewish community that he and his wife joined in the 1880s after leaving New York.

Hearing that Steinig had traced Gustave Gumpel's place of business for a time to a "meat market," Ward-Donegan suddenly recalled a conversation she had with her mother, who had one mangled finger. When she asked her mother how it happened, "Playing in her father's butcher shop," was the reply.

By all indications, Tina Gumpel was the rabbi's second wife, helping raise four children from a prior marriage as well as five of her own. She died about 10 years after coming to the United States, sometime around her 30th birthday, leaving Gustave Gumpel to raise the large brood on his own. Her youngest child, identified as Deborah on an 1887 birth record, Dora in the 1900 census, and Dorothy Gomple when she converted to Catholicism and was baptized by Father William J. Fitzgerald in Bridgeport in 1908, was a toddler when her mother died.

Ward-Donegan said her mother was subsequently cared for by two half sisters, who had been thrust into a role they apparently resented. Dorothy bolted the moment she came of age and, Ward-Donegan said, "never went back." She built a new life in Philadelphia, where she married Thomas O'Connor, a decorative painter, in late 1909 at St. Clement's Church.

According to both Ward-Donegan and Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the New York Archdiocese, the cardinal occasionally referred to his mother as a newcomer to Catholicism. "It wasn't a secret," Zwilling said. But based on her German roots and apparent knowledge of German as a child, the assumption was that she had converted from Lutheranism.

Ward-Donegan, of Ridley Park, Pa., said she only began digging into her roots after her daughter, Christian, gave her a subscription to Ancestry.com, an online fount of genealogical records, for Mother's Day two years ago.