The following story appeared in the May 27 Idaho Catholic Register.
By Emily Woodham
Father Paul O’Donnell of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles didn’t discern his call to the priesthood until he was 30. “My family never thought I’d be the one to become a priest,” Father O’Donnell said. “The key for me was going to daily Mass. Once I started going to daily Mass, I realized the Lord was calling me.”
After nine years of serving as a missionary and 20 years serving in Los Angeles, he is transferring to the Diocese of Boise to be pastor at St. Mark’s Parish in Boise beginning in July.
Father O’Donnell was struck by the beauty of the state and the openness and goodness of the people when he visited friends and family in northern Idaho. “I just enjoyed it so much, and I always had the feeling that I would love to come back.”
Later, he met Bishop Peter Christensen and they briefly discussed his coming to Idaho. However, before transferring to the Diocese of Boise, he wanted to finish his term at his parish in Lomita, Calif., St. Margaret Mary Alacoque Catholic Church. After completing his nine years of serving as pastor at St. Margaret Mary, the time was right to come to Boise, he said.
“I’m really excited about going up to Idaho and serving at St. Mark’s. I’ve heard wonderful things about St. Mark’s,” he said.
Father O’Donnell was raised in a large Catholic family with five siblings. His family lived just outside Chicago and then moved to New Jersey when he was 10. He attended Catholic schools until he was midway through high school.
“I thought seriously about becoming a priest in the Eighth Grade,” he said. “I fell in love with my Seventh Grade teacher, who was a nun. I thought she was old, but she was just 22. She was full of the joy of the Lord. I realized that what I loved about her was that she loved the Lord. And that’s what I wanted.”
His oldest brother went to a Maryknoll Junior Seminary for high school to discern the priesthood. Although his brother was not ordained, his time of discernment prompted Father O’Donnell to discern priesthood, too.
However, he felt conflicted about a call during his high school years.
“There were some family problems, and I became rebellious and taciturn,” he said. He struggled with his faith.
“I understand some of the issues that young people are going through. Thanks be to God, the Lord is so good, loving and patient. He kept calling through all those years,” he said.
Father O’Donnell received his bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the California Institute of the Arts in 1978. He pursued a career as a professional artist and book illustrator. In college, he was an “on-again, off-again Catholic,” he said. But when he was living on his own as an artist, he began to change. “I started to live more like a monk, praying, going to daily Mass, and finding a good parish. That’s how the Lord called me.”
He met members of the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus when he was doing an art show in Mexico. He decided to pursue priest-hood through their congregation. He attended three universities during his 8½ years of formation: St. Jerome’s University in Canada, Catholic Theo-logical Union in Chicago, and Urbaniana University in Rome.
Father O’Donnell was ordained on March 20, 1993, in Pasadena by Bishop Juan Arzube, then the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He served as a missionary in the Philippines for seven years and in Mexico for 2 years.
As a young missionary, he studied Redemptoris Missio, Pope St. John Paul II’s document on the mission of the Church. The document continues to influence how he tries to live his life, he said.
“A favorite quote from Redemptoris Missio is that the kingdom of God tends toward the transformation of relationships. Wherever one loves, serves, and forgives another, there the kingdom is being built,” he said. “Whether people are rich or poor, in need or able to give, the possibility for the transformation of our human relationships in Christ into mutual loving service is there.”
Due to health issues, he stopped working in the mission field. He served as a chaplain and spiritual director for Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart in Los Angeles from 2004 to 2008. In 2009, he decided to do parish work and was incardinated into the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He served as administrator and then pastor at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Lomita from 2013 until June of this year.
With his personal experience as a Catholic school student and in working with Catholic schools as a pastor, Father O’Donnell is an ardent supporter of Catholic education. “Catholic schools are the best way to support Catholic families. The families are the first teachers of the faith, and the schools buttress what the kids learn at home about the faith,” he said.
“Wherever I’ve worked, I’ve been blessed. I’ve had wonderful principals, and we’ve gotten along beautifully. If you work together, you can get so much done for the school,” he said.
Catholic identity is the key issue for schools, he said. “Students can learn about all the other subjects in one way or another, but the Catholic identity is what will help these children through their whole life. You have to support Catholic education.”
He doesn’t plan on changing everything that is good about St. Mark’s, one of the Diocese’s largest parishes. “I’m not going to St. Mark’s to impose my ideas about pastoral work or the Church. I’m going there hopefully to reflect the face of Jesus and to meet Jesus in each and every parishioner and each and every child in the school and to try and serve Him as best I can.”
Father O’Donnell has traveled the country leading retreats and giving spiritual direction to priests, religious and laity. He continues to create art, write and perform music. He has written two books, “Night as Clear as Day” (a series of short stories) and “A Place of Springs” (a novella). He speaks Spanish, Italian and Tagalog.
“During my years in the priesthood, the thing that sticks with me the most is how beautiful, faithful and merciful is our Lord Jesus. I went through a lot of years being too busy. He’s taught me over the years to first come to Him in prayer and Adoration and then do what Our Lady said at the wedding feast in Cana, ‘Do whatever He tells you.’ He’s been very patient, kind and merciful to me.”
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