Father Michael J. O’Connor delivers his final homily June 24 as pastor in Sacred Heart Church, Bay Head.   Michael Glenn photos
Father Michael J. O’Connor delivers his final homily June 24 as pastor in Sacred Heart Church, Bay Head.   Michael Glenn photos

Story by EmmaLee Italia | Correspondent

Father Michael J. O’Connor may have just retired July 1 from full-time ministry as a priest of the Diocese of Trenton, but he has no plans to retreat. This is, to be sure a new phase of life – but one of ministry and activity, nonetheless.

Photo Gallery: Father O'Connor's Farewell Mass in Sacred Heart Parish

“I got a call from a pastor a few months ago, Father J.C. Garrett,” explained Father O’Connor. “He has two parishes: Holy Name in Delran and St. Casimir in Riverside. I started helping him last week, and I’ll do the same every week, as long as I’m able. Plus I love to exercise, so I signed up for a gym and I plan to exercise four days a week.”

Celebrating 46 years as a priest, Father O’Connor was given a heartfelt send-off June 24 from his parish of Sacred Heart, Bay Head. He blessed and thanked the people he led for the past six years, and said he looks forward to his new role helping priests in the Diocese as needed.

Father O’Connor was born Sept. 14, 1946, in Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland, to parents Michael and Nora O’Connor. The oldest of six children with two brothers and three sisters, he grew up as a member of Sacred Heart Parish, Skibbereen. He attended Carlow College and St. Patrick Seminary, Carlow, Ireland, and was ordained June 17, 1972, in Ireland for the Diocese of Trenton – but not before he had some initial reservations.

“There was a priest in Long Island, New York – Father John Cadagon – who encouraged me to become a priest,” Father O’Connor said. “He came home [to Ireland] every year and visited my mom and dad; when I was 17, he asked me would I like to become a priest? I said, ‘No, way!’”

After a time, he changed his mind and listened to the persuasive Father Cadagon. “I came to my senses, I guess!” Father O’Connor continued jovially. “My family supported me as well, and my mom’s sister was a nun, so from both sides I was ‘locked in.’”

Now residing in Villa Vianney, Lawrenceville, Father O’Connor reflected on his vocation. What he has enjoyed most has been his relationship with the people he serves.

“I always wanted to be involved in some kind of service,” he said, “so for me the best way I could spend my life was in the priesthood, serving people. Basically, all the years I loved working in the parish[es] because I love parish life.”

Father O’Connor served as parochial vicar in Guardian Angels Parish, Edison (now the Metuchen Diocese); St. Denis Parish, Manasquan; and Our Lady of Sorrows (now Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony) Parish, Hamilton. In 1985, he was named pastor of Holy Name Parish (now Resurrection Parish), Delran, and served there for 19 years until he was named pastor of St. Mary of the Lake Parish, Lakewood, in 2004. Father O’Connor was appointed pastor of Sacred Heart Parish by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., July 1, 2012.

“The people were very welcoming to me in every parish I was in,” he recalled. “I learned a lot over the years. The people inspire me every day to be a good priest.”

Father O’Connor’s goals as a priest were for both himself and for his parishioners, “to get to heaven, to save my own soul, and to help other people to live a good life,” he said, “[to develop] self-discipline, to pray every day, to [help others learn to] respect their family and to love their neighbors.”

The essentials of the priesthood, he believes, are the “celebration of the Eucharist, hearing Confessions and helping other people.”

One of the ways Father O’Connor helped his flock was through frequent postings on the Sacred Heart Parish Facebook page. On June 26, his last post as pastor could be interpreted not only as advice for parishioners, but for his own journey forward as well.

“The results are up to God,” he wrote. “What counts is that we make a commitment and rely on God. We have to give of ourselves fully... whatever we love, it is good to share it with others.”

Having witnessed many changes in the Church over the course of 46 years, Father O’Connor said, “I’m happy I made it through the years ... Some of my classmates and friends left the priesthood.”

But Father O’Connor left behind any doubts about his ministry many years ago. “I’m happy I came to America,” he said assuredly. “I would do it all over again.”