Pope John Paul II appointed Bishop O’Connell to be the bishop of Rarotonga in November 1996. He was ordained bishop on February 22, 1997 in St Joseph’s Cathedral, Avarua. His predecessor, Robin Leamy, was the consecrating bishop. Archbishop of Wellington Cardinal Thomas Williams and the Bishop of Tonga John Foliaki assisted him.
Bishop Stuart O’Connell was born in 1935. He was professed in the Society of Mary in 1956 and ordained a priest in July 1960.
Before becoming the seventh bishop of Rarotonga, Father O’Connell pursued varied ministries that included secondary school teaching in New Zealand and the Pacific, in priestly formation and in leadership in the Society of Mary. He taught at Chanel College in Samoa from 1966 to 1969. He returned there as principal from 1976 until 1982.
For two years he was involved in priestly formation at the Society of Mary Seminary in Greenmeadows, Hawkes Bay.
From 1985 until his episcopal appointment he was part of the leadership team in the New Zealand Province of the Society of Mary. He was at various times during this period councillor, vicar provincial and provincial bursar. In 1991 Father O’Connell was elected provincial of the New Zealand province, a post he held until his episcopal appointment.
Recalling Bishop O’Connell’s time as bishop of Rarotonga our people remember him today this way. These are some of the comments that have been made to me:
1. He rebuilt the two catholic schools. First, St Joseph’s because it was beyond its use by date. At Nukutere the classrooms had to be rebuilt after the first fire. He had a great love for education.
2. Words that Pope Francis has used of a bishop is that “he knows the smell of his people.” Bishop O’Connell was always welcoming and trusted by his people. He was humble. Down to earth. A father figure, always optimistic.
3. He enjoyed his time as a member of the Religious Advisory Council. “He could talk with anyone”, was a comment made. His colleagues in the Pacific recognised this quality in him and had Bishop Stuart appointed to Pacific Conference of Churches as their representative. There was a growing in friendship with other Pacific church leaders.
4. In Rome, he participated in the Synod on Oceania (1998) and the Mission congress in Rome in the jubilee Year of 2000.
After he resigned as the bishop of Rarotonga in 2011, Bishop O’Connell lived in retirement in Auckland and assisted Bishop Patrick Dunn. The diocese of Rarotonga still has two retired bishops alive. Bishop Robin Leamy, retired too in Auckland and Bishop Denis Browne, who left the Cook Islands to be bishop of Auckland and more recently Hamilton. Bishop Browne in retirement is chaplain to the catholic Cook Island community in the Auckland diocese.
A vigil mass will be celebrated at Christ the King Church, Owairaka, 260 Richardson Rd, Auckland at 7pm on August 8. Bishop Paul Donoghue, the present bishop of Rarotonga, will be the principal celebrant. Requiem Mass will be celebrated in the same church at 11.30am on Friday August 9. Bishop Denis Browne will be the principal celebrant.
Burial will be at St Patrick’s Church Cemetery, Panmure. May he rest in peace.
–Bishop Paul Donoghue/Church News