Over His Dead Body

Let’s return briefly to our tour. Across the street and a block to the west of the seminary grounds sits Boston College. The school wants to expand. It believes it has to expand. So when Archbishop Seán O’Malley was hard up for cash a few years ago and looking to dump land to remain solvent, BC introduced itself as a willing buyer.

Two problems with this transaction. Number one: When BC bought the archdiocese’s land, it bought what’s left of O’Connell, too. His family doesn’t want to see its "Uncle Cardinal" moved, and points to the cardinal’s will as proof that he didn’t want to go anywhere. Problem number two: the fuming Lake Street residents.

Lake Street, remember, slopes down the western edge of the former archdiocesan land. Its homeowners long ago grew used to the quiet the archdiocese kept. They don’t want loud, drunk college kids moving in. It hurts property values, and just imagine it in the winter: students looking from their shiny new dorms through the bare trees and into the living rooms—or bedrooms!—of the grownups across the street.

As it happens, one of these angry neighbors is Secretary of State William Galvin, who lives at number 46. He’s opposed as a private citizen to BC’s expansion plans. Worse for the school, Galvin’s professional obligations include ensuring that the state’s historical sites (read: the seminary) stay historical.

One way—a myopic way—to gauge what we have here is as another town-gown real estate spat, like Harvard bulldozing all of Allston. But really, here in this corner of Brighton is a battle royal among the most important forces in town: the Catholic Church’s interests; the government’s maneuverings; academia’s pretensions; property owners’ rights; and history’s long, long reach and relevance. It’s a fight that could take place in no other city—and fights like those, of course, tend to be the juiciest kind.

O’Connell’s elevation to cardinal set a powerful precedent. Each of the four Boston archbishops who’ve succeeded him has been named one as well. Thanks to O’Connell, the position has become Boston Catholics’ birthright, and he ensured that it would remain highly potent for his successors.

"It wasn’t just about being the leader of one of the churches in the area," says O’Connell’s biographer, Boston College historian James O’Toole. "He made the archbishop a publ
ic figure comparable to the mayor or the governor." Cardinal Richard Cushing’s advocacy on behalf of the working class and the Kennedy dynasty, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros’s public management of the busing crisis, and Cardinal Bernard Law’s political activism on abortion, the death penalty, and Cuba—they all followed the model established by O’Connell.

There are darker parallels, too. O’Connell presided over a system of archdiocesan rule that valued prestige and personality politics above everything else while ignoring the sexual misconduct of its underlings. Two of O’Connell’s closest aides, both of whom lived with him in the cardinal’s residence, were married at the same time that they were serving as ordained priests. One, his nephew James O’Connell, kept a wife in New York and was believed by O’Connell’s enemies in the clergy to be embezzling archdiocesan funds to pay for this arrangement. The second, Father David Toomey, edited the Pilot and served as the cardinal’s personal chaplain. His secret marriage to a Manhattan woman, done under an assumed name, was part of a bigger double life: When the Manhattan wife visited Boston, she found Toomey having an affair with a Cambridge girlfriend. Toomey and James O’Connell were also known for hosting bacchanal dinners for favored clergymen. A dissident priest reported that one such affair featured indecent menu cards and "enough liquors to float a battleship." O’Connell’s enemies frantically lobbied church leadership in Rome to have the cardinal removed from power in Boston and transferred to an obscure ceremonial post, but the Vatican was unswayed.

This imperviousness to the rule of man, 50 years after O’Connell’s death, also informed Cardinal Bernard Law’s reign, of course. But 21st-century society hit back, and the cardinal’s complicity in the sex abuse scandal invited the massive lawsuits that nearly bankrupted the archdiocese. As it scrambled for ways to settle its mounting debts, Law’s replacement, Archbishop Seán O’Malley, had little choice but to sell the church’s land. Hence, the St. John’s complex’s going to Boston College: first a 43-acre parcel for $99 million in 2004; then a 4-acre sliver for $8 million in 2006; and finally the remaining 18 acres for $65 million in 2007. The institutional rule O’Connell pioneered had eviscerated the institution he built—and, with that last sale, all of his beloved land.

As painful as it was for the faithful, the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal was a godsend for Boston College. Before it, BC was landlocked and unable to grow, hemmed in on three sides by wealthy residential neighborhoods and on the fourth by the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. Now, suddenly, the school had more land than it knew what to do with. Well, that’s not exactly true. It did know what to do with it: build, and then build some more.

BC has a lot riding on its new parcel. Nothing less than "the future of Boston College" lies north of Commonwealth Avenue, says one prominent alum, who didn’t want to be seen as speaking for the school administration. The school was so anxious to grasp that future that it offered a significant premium for the archdiocesan plot—nearly $70 million above assessed value, or more than $1 million more per acre. According to a source with knowledge of the deal, BC hurried to complete the 2004 sale agreement, and the archdiocese, desperate to pay off victims of the abuse scandal, was just as eager to close. Both sides knew O’Connell’s remains could potentially be trouble, but they entered into the arrangement anyway, attaching a stipulation to the sales contract saying that the archdiocese, as the former owner of O’Connell’s body, would assist in arranging for its removal from BC’s new land at some unspecified time in the future.

The archdiocese has tried to live up to its end of that agreement, to no avail: Since it no longer owns the land, it has no jurisdiction over its contents or inhabitants, which means it can’t tell O’Connell’s family what to do with his remains. Technically, BC isn’t similarly restrained, but on a practical level, exhuming O’Connell presents its own problems. "BC, the owner, has not informed us, the family, about the reason why they would want him removed," says O’Connell’s great-nephew, Edward Kirk. "We didn’t see any real reason why he couldn’t stay where he is." Even if the family did support a bid to take a jackhammer to Uncle Cardinal’s mausoleum, a probate judge would still have to find a compelling reason why BC couldn’t live with the cardinal’s bones up on the hill. BC hasn’t articulated that to anybody yet. The college likes to think much more big-picture.