While mapping out her family tree, Mary O’Connor Ward-Donegan, 87, made a discovery that goes far beyond her family, reverberating through history and across the Catholic and Jewish communities.
She is the younger sister of the late Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor, the revered Archbishop of New York from 1984 until his death in 2000.
Her foray into the O’Connor family’s genealogy in 2014 revealed that their mother, Dorothy, was Jewish.
Dorothy passed away in 1971. While the O’Connors long knew that she had converted to Catholicism in 1908, they assumed by her Germanic-sounding maiden name, Dorothy Gomple, that she had been a Lutheran.
In fact, her given name was Deborah Gumpel, and she was the daughter of Gustave Gumpel, a kosher butcher and rabbi to the Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT.
Sharing her findings in the publication “Catholic New York,” Ward-Donegan said that she is certain her older brother the Cardinal would have been thrilled by the discovery.
“My eyes fill with tears and I smile as I think of how my brother would have cherished the thought,” she writes. “He did not know our mother was Jewish, yet there is knowledge deeper than the intellect.
“In his heart and in his soul, my brother had a deep and profound love for the Jewish people. He had a loyalty and a fidelity to them that went far beyond natural human respect. . . . He would have considered it the greatest honor to be united with ties of blood to the race that bore our Savior Jesus Christ and His Holy Mother.”
Cardinal O’Connor was recognized as a friend of Jews in New York and beyond. He was involved in the Vatican’s recognition of the State of Israel and the establishment of official diplomatic relations between the two in 1993. He often reflected upon his visit to Dachau as a Navy chaplain, something Ward-Donegan also notes.
“Whenever he spoke of the Holocaust he did so with tears in his heart. As a priest, during a trip to the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, he was pierced to the core. He vowed that he would do whatever he could, until his dying breath, to promote the sacredness of every human life.”
Following O’Connor’s death, Ed Koch, the late Mayor of New York said, “I loved John Cardinal O’Connor as I did my own flesh and blood brother.’”
Ward-Donegan began researching her ancestry last year in anticipation of a trip to Ireland with her daughter Eileen Ward Christian. She was able to find information on her father’s family, but scant detail on her mother’s.
They eventually tracked down the gravestones of her maternal grandparents, but were surprised to find them in a Jewish cemetery in Fairfield, Connecticut, owned by the B’nai Israel congregation of Bridgeport.
Writing in “Catholic New York,” Ward-Donegan expressed her wonder over her mother’s Jewish upbringing but also said that in many ways it made sense.
“I do not know why my mother never shared this with us, although it fits her character. She was a humble, discreet, and gracious woman who rarely spoke of herself. She was also one of the most devout Catholics I have ever known. I marvel at the work of grace in her soul that led her to the Catholic Church. She did not marry my father, Thomas O’Connor, for nearly two years after her baptism. Her path to the Catholic Church was a secret of her heart—held now in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Church where she was baptized.”
After the article was published, genealogist Renee Stern Steinig and the publication Jewish Week were able to uncover further information. Gustave Gumpel, born in Prussia, immigrated to the US and initially settled in the Lower East Side, where he worked as a butcher. He had four children with a first wife, who died young, and five more children with his second wife, Tina, who died at the age of thirty. The youngest of these children was Deborah, born in 1887.
In the 1908 Census she is listed as Dora Gumpel, and in 1909, as Dorothy Gomple, she was baptized as a Catholic at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Bridgeport by Father William J. Fitzgerald. Further information uncovered by Steinig suggests that there were some divisions among the Gumpel children, with at least three of the siblings leaving the Jewish faith.
The current-day Gumpel descendants are delighted with their new-found past. Ward-Donegan had been away honeymooning but told the WABC radio show “Religion on the Line” that she and her eight children are “all very pleased” with the news. “They’re just as excited as I am,” she said. “This means a great deal to me as a Catholic. It would be a link to a very ancient past.”
A widow for over 30 years, on May 3, 2014 she married her longtime neighbor Francis Donegan, hence the recent hyphen in her last name.