The sister of Cardinal John O’Connor, the late archbishop of New York, said she was “thrilled” when she learned that their late mother was born Jewish and that their grandfather had been a pulpit rabbi in Bridgeport, Conn.
Mary O’Connor Ward, 87, told The Jewish Week that she had been on her honeymoon two weeks ago when her youngest daughter, Eileen Ward Christian, sent her an e-mail of The Jewish Week story revealing that she and the cardinal’s grandfather had been a rabbi.
A Dix Hills, L.I., genealogist, Renee Steinig, made the discovery after reading that Ward had recently done some genealogical research of her own and discovered that her mother, Dorothy, was baptized a Catholic in 1908 at the age of 19. Until then, Ward said, she had believed her mother had converted from Lutheranism or another religion.
“I really felt such comfort in knowing how far my heritage goes back,” Ward said on the WABC Radio program “Religion on the Line.” “That means a great deal to me as a Catholic. It would be a link to a very ancient past.”
Ward had been a widow for more than 30 years and on May 3 married a longtime neighbor, Francis Donegan.
She said that in discovering her mother’s Jewish roots she learned that her grandparents are buried in a Jewish cemetery in Connecticut. She visited their graves but could not read her grandfather’s headstone because it was written entirely in Hebrew.
She not know until she read The Jewish Week article that her grandfather had been the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport and the community’s local kosher butcher. But she said it reminded her of a conversation she had had with her mother when, as a young child, she had asked why the tip of one of her mother’s fingers was deformed.
“She said she had been playing in her father’s butcher shop and cut off the top of her finger. She said her father stuck it back on and wrapped it up.”
Ward said she has eight children and that they “all are very pleased” with their newfound heritage.
“They are just as excited as I am,” she said.
Steinig is continuing to look into the cardinal’s ancestral tree and is now trying to find the great grandchildren of his Aunt Minnie Gumpel Cohen — Andrew, Stacey and James Cohen. She believes they were born here in the 1960s to Herman Cohen, who died in 1967.
In her radio conversation with Rabbi Joseph Postasnik and Deacon Kevin McCormack, Ward said: “To me it is such a joy that my link is back to Jesus Christ and the Blessed Mother, all of whom were Jewish.”