Edwin O'Hara

Rev. Edwin O'Hara celebrating mass
Rev. Edwin O'Hara celebrating mass at Holy Rosary. Courtesy of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph Archives.

When Edwin O'Hara, Archbishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, died in 1956, a local Jewish leader said O'Hara represented the perfect blending of service to God and neighbor. It was public acknowledgment of O'Hara's faith-based life and dedication to social justice.

Edwin Vincent O'Hara was born in 1881 on a Minnesota farm, the youngest of eight children. Ordained a priest in 1905 and assigned to Portland, Oregon, Father O'Hara soon exhibited leadership in both urban and rural areas. His first bishopric was in Great Falls, Montana.

When he became bishop of Kansas City in 1939, Bishop O'Hara brought with him a national reputation for progressive achievements. These included guaranteeing the right of Catholic children to attend Oregon Catholic schools. As a defendant in a U.S. Supreme Court case, he improved working conditions for Oregon women. The decision impacted labor laws in 11 states, including Kansas. His defense counsel included notables Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter.

The clergyman decided early in his career that education was the key to success for individuals and the church. In his first Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City, Bishop O'Hara said, "The future of this great diocese is with the youth of today." O'Hara soon developed new co-ed high schools in Kansas City: Glennon, Hogan, and Lillis, and St. Mary's in Independence. A strong Catholic Youth Council provided spiritual support and athletic events.

His appreciation of dedicated Catholics led him to increase the role of the laity. He created strong alliances for men and women who served as social welfare advocates, financial advisors, and vocation supporters. For decades, O'Hara was a leading advocate of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD), a national organization of laity who taught religion to children and adults. It is considered a primary force in forming the modern Catholic Church in the U.S. Believing Catholics should be active in church services, not merely listen passively to Latin liturgy, he obtained approval to have parts of the Mass and administration of church sacraments conducted in English.

His outreach took many forms. O'Hara joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He created the area's first racially integrated hospital, Queen of the World Hospital on 23rd Street and promoted integration of St. Mary's and St. Joseph medical facilities. He was a member of the National Conference of Christians and Jews and in 1955 received a special citation from them.

His love for farm families led to one of his early and lasting successes—organizing the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. His deep concerns for workers and just wages led to a national symposium for industrial leaders at Rockhurst College in 1941. Speakers included national presidents of both the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

In 1954, in recognition of his progressive activities, O'Hara was named an Archbishop, an honor highly celebrated in Kansas City.

On September 6, 1956, his 75th birthday, O'Hara left for Rome, but in Milan he died of a heart attack on September 11. Archbishop Montini of Milan (later Pope Paul VI), with whom he had planned to have lunch that day, celebrated the Requiem Mass. O'Hara's body was flown to Kansas City where flags were flown at half-mast. The farm boy had spent his life planting seeds for his church with ideas well ahead of their time. The diocese experienced many building projects under his leadership, yet the frugal builder left his diocese debt-free.

A deeply spiritual man, he was laid to rest in the beautiful Benedictine Convent of Perpetual Adoration, a place of ongoing prayer at Meyer Boulevard and The Paseo. His body was later moved to Mt. Olivet Cemetery. In 1965, Archbishop O'Hara High School opened in the metro area, a fitting tribute to the man who so revered education.