Fr. Jim

Fr. Jim O’Donnell ~ Cleveland’s Living Saint is An Craobh Ceannais (The Champion of Central)

By Tommy O’Sionnach

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to the prisoners.

-Isaiah 61:1

We often think of the word “champion” as it pertains to the world of sports. There are many famous athletes who probably come to mind–too many to mention, quite honestly. Of course, that’s interpreting the word as a noun.

These folks are often honored by our society for their accomplishments, but it’s those who embody the word “champion” as a verb that deserve the most respect and credit for making this earthly existence so beautiful.

These special people are extremely rare and dedicate their lives to fighting for and protecting their fellow man. Such is the case with a son of Irish immigrants born and raised in East Cleveland.

Father James Patrick O’Donnell has made more of an impact on the lives of his fellow man than can ever be spoken of or written about. There are just not enough hours in a day, days in a month, or months in a year to truly capture what he has meant to all those blessed to have known him over the past 94 years. His life has been a testament to not only the Gospels, but the first four verses of the 61st Chapter of Isaiah.

Born at the start of the Great Depression to Irish immigrants from County Mayo — his father, Owen O’Donnell, hailed from Isle Eady, and his mother, Margaret Keaveny, from Balintubber, where St. Patrick baptized the first Christians – Father Jim was the oldest of four children. He and his siblings were raised in Saint Philomena Parish and were a part of the Eastside Irish community.

Jimmy and Gene O’Donnell Squires Castle July 5, 1942 Taken by Alycemar DeRighter Pictures courtesy of Patti Behnke
Jimmy and Gene O’Donnell, Squires Castle July 5, 1942. Taken by Alycemar DeRighter. Pictures courtesy of Patti Behnke
Jimmy and Gene O’Donnell Squires Castle July 5, 1942 Taken by Alycemar DeRighter Pictures courtesy of Patti Behnke
(back row): Mary Murphy, Eugene O’Donnell, Jimmy O’Donnell, Helen Murphy, Tommy Francis O’Donnell (front row): Billy O’Donnell, Eillein O’Donnell July 5th, 1942. Taken by Alycemar DeRighter; Pictures courtesy of Patti Behnke
Fr Jim O'Donnell w St Pats team August 1952 (back row, 4th from Right)

Owen was a “great 310er” (member of the building laborers’ local union) and worked construction to provide for his family. It was from his dad that the young James Patrick learned the value of hard work and how to make it a prayer throughout his life.

To announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God,
to comfort all who mourn;

-Isaiah 61:2

Fr Jim ordination

Fr. Jim O'Donnell at his Ordination, 1965

After graduating from Cathedral Latin in 1948, James Patrick O’Donnell pursued his call to serve God and enrolled at St. Jerome’s College in Kitchener, Ontario for two years before spending six years at St. Mary’s Seminary in Cleveland, Ohio. His first assignment was at St. Colman Church on West 65th Street, where he was warmly welcomed by the Westside Irish community for what he recalls as “six very happy years.” It was during this time that my family came to know him as it was the parish of my grandparents, Tom and Catherine Fox.

Following his time at St. Colman’s, Father Jim was transferred to St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Avon. It was a big change going from the urban setting of the near Westside to the rural outskirts of Lorain County, but he also fondly recalls those years ministering to a much more ethnically diverse congregation.

In 1968, Father Jim’s life took a different direction when he was made director of Cleveland’s Catholic Youth Organization, or CYO. While most think of athletics when they hear mention of the organization, the thirty-eight-year-old priest – who delegated the athletic side of things to others – used his new position to “help young people to live the message of the Gospel.” Among the accomplishments during his tenure was a walk for hunger in 1970 that saw 3,000 of Cleveland’s Catholic youth walk 25 miles to raise awareness for the plight faced by those living in impoverished conditions throughout the city.

During his years as Director, Father Jim also brought in numerous individuals to speak to the young people of the diocese who he believed were “living the Gospel.” Some of those individuals included Black Like Me author John Howard Griffin; Dan Egan, the man known as “the junkie priest” for his work helping to rehabilitate drug addicts; and, most notably, the little nun from Calcutta, India, who the world knew as Mother Teresa.

In November and December of 1974, Fr. O’Donnell flew to India to work side-by-side with the future Catholic saint. Last year at Christmas, I wrote a piece for my Substack column, The Empathetic Fox, about his experience. Here is an excerpt:

A few months ago, I spoke with Father Jim about his experience from almost fifty years ago. Throughout our conversation he referred to her simply as Mother, something she was to millions of the poorest and sickest people imaginable. He was his usual patient self with the questions I asked. While scribbling down some of the stories from his experience with her, it occurred to me that the privilege of just hearing his first-hand accounts was one of the greatest blessings and gifts I have ever received in my life. So, this Christmas, what better gift to give all of you?

What Was Mother Teresa Like?
One of my favorite stories Fr. Jim shared pertained to how she would put whoever came to meet her right to work caring for the sick – even those rich and famous that came to donate money to the mission of her Sisters of Loretto. The wealthy donors who usually arrived in expensive suits—hoping for a photo-op with the world-famous nun – were told to roll up their sleeves and get to work!

While always grateful for financial assistance in support of her mission, what was just as important to Mother Teresa was for people to spend time helping the poor beyond their monetary donations. She once said, “Today it is very fashionable to talk about the poor. Unfortunately, it is not fashionable to talk with them.”

A Sneak Peek of Heaven
On one occasion, the Canonized Catholic Saint and Father Jim were invited to visit a colony of lepers. While there, those who had been outcast due to their sickness put together an impromptu Christmas concert.

Using primitive instruments, pots, and jugs, the lepers performed on a makeshift stage for their audience of two. As they played, the longtime priest shared with me how at one point Mother Teresa leaned over and whispered to him, “This is what it will be like when we are in Heaven.”

Feeding the Poor on Christmas Eve
Calcutta, today known as Kolkata, has a population of almost 15 million. One of the city’s largest travel hubs in 1974 was Sealdah Railway Station, where thousands of the city’s homeless population lived.

On Christmas Eve, Saint Teresa of Calcutta asked Father Jim to feed the poor there, sending him out with three body bags full of bread. Yes, you read that correctly, and a bucket of tea.

In what could only be described as a sea of starving, emaciated people, the longtime Catholic priest distributed all that he brought with him in no time and, when it became apparent he couldn’t feed everyone, passed through the hungry masses saying simply, “I love you, my brother. I love you, my sister.”

Father Christmas
On Christmas Day, Father Jim was asked to play games with the poor children of the streets by the tiny “Ma,” who was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, in what is today Skopje, Macedonia. After leading the children in some simple games and being handed a bag of tangerines, she instructed, “Now go play Father Christmas.”

The joy a simple piece of fruit brought those impoverished children could be seen in their faces, as the man playing Father Christmas observed it was as though they had just been given the greatest gift they had ever received. Talk about perspective.

To place on those who mourn in Zion a diadem instead of ashes, to give them oil of gladness in the place of mourning, a glorious mantle instead of a listless spirit. They will be called Oaks of righteousness, planted by the Lord to show his glory.

-Isaiah 61:3

In the years following his trip to Calcutta, Father O’Donnell, along with his dear friend Sister Maggie Walsh-Conrad, began ministering to one of the most impoverished areas of Cleveland, Ohio, known as Central. The pair would become “Oaks of Righteousness” for that community for the next 45 years, as they served the predominantly African-American neighborhood, which was the poorest neighborhood in Cleveland back then, and remains so today.

Sr. Maggie
Sr. Maggie and Fr. Jim

Little Brothers and Sisters of the Eucharist
In 1980, The Little Brothers and Sisters of the Eucharist were officially recognized by the Diocese of Cleveland. Sister Maggie and the man who worked side-by-side with a famous saint, began changing thousands of lives for the better—just as Mother Teresa had. They helped rebuild the poverty-stricken East 35th neighborhood both physically and spiritually, becoming a beacon of hope to thousands along the way.

Among the multitude of things the Little Brothers and Sisters of the Eucharist accomplished:

Bringing Habitat for Humanity to the E. 35th neighborhood to build new homes. He mentioned it started with a blitz of putting up 10 houses in 15 Days! Since then, hundreds of homes have been built in Central by Habitat.

Fr Jims Garden
Fr Jim's Garden

Creating a Community Gardens to feed the neighborhood and supply the Food Bank at E. 18th and Superior. The amount of produce grown behind the houses he and Maggie called home, 2186 and 2182 E. 35th Street, is nothing short of staggering. The pair worked jointly with members of Trinity Cathedral Episcopalian Church; the garden still flourishes today, thanks to those parishioners.

Fr. Jim often referred to the work as joyful and a prayer. Driving by the gardens, you would often see him hard at work, wearing a hat and plenty of sunscreen to protect his fair Irish skin from the sun.

Caring for many of the abused and neglected children of the neighborhood, Father Jim and Sister Maggie fostered fourteen children and adopted three: Josie, Martin, and Caroline. Martin was received into their home just three days after his birth. Below is a picture of Martin with my nephews, Tommy, Billy, and Jimmy, on their first communion day.


Sr. Ignatia
Father Jim has been ministering to Alcoholics for 73 years now. Father Jim’s second cousin was the renowned Sister Ignatia, also known as the Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous. Father O’Donnell has helped hundreds of men and women who battle this terrible scourge, including yours truly.

Out of the blue four years ago, I received a call from Father Jim. He told me over the phone that he felt moved to reach out to me. Little did he know I had reached a low point with my drinking. Three days later, I met with him at his home in West Park, and have been free of the shackles of alcohol ever since.

Father Jim has also helped set up numerous L’Arche communities throughout Greater Cleveland to help those intellectually disabled. For thirty years he volunteered to minister at the women’s prison at E. 30th and Orange. On top of all of this, for forty-five years he faithfully said Sunday Mass at St. Malachi’s at the invitation of Father Paul Ritz, and said Mass at his home for so many every Thursday night.   

Below is a mural painted to honor “Community Advocates Past and Present” by Cleveland artist Madeleine Keller. Like Saint Teresa of Calcutta, Father James O’Donnell represents the best a human being can be. He took her example and beautifully implemented an oasis of peace in his own hometown. Throughout his life, he has cared for and ministered to those who could not do anything for him in return and, according to the famous holy woman from Skopje, that is how one’s true character is most accurately measured.

They shall rebuild the ancient ruins, the former wastes they shall raise up and restore the ruined cities, desolate now for generations.

-Isaiah 61:4

An Craobh Ceannais, or The Champion of Central, is a fitting way to refer to the man who spent so much of his life championing the poor of his community and dedicating himself to rebuilding and restoring not just an East Cleveland neighborhood, but the lives of those living there and well beyond. Much like the Prophet Isaiah, Father Jim O’Donnell brought glad tidings to the lowly and healing to the brokenhearted. His ministry has touched hundreds of thousands of lives because he chose to live out the message of the Gospels, doing so with the utmost grace and humility and showing us what it truly means to love our fellow man.

Tommy O’Sionnach

*Tommy O’Sionnach

*Tommy O’Sionnach is a father, teacher, author, and coach who originally hails from Lakewood, Ohio, where he and his six siblings were raised. The grandson of Irish immigrants, he published his first book, A Penny’s Thoughts, in 2021 and writes a weekly blog on his Substack accoun,t titled The Empathetic Fox. He makes his home in Altoona, Pennsylvania.


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