A dispatch from the Boston-is-a-really-small-town department: Paul G. Kirk Jr., who was named today as the interim US Senator from Massachusetts, is the grand-nephew of Cardinal William H. O'Connell, one of the most powerful figures in local church history, who served as archbishop of Boston from 1907 until his death in 1944. Kirk, 71, is one of five children of Josephine O'Connell, whose father, Edward J. O'Connell, was an older brother of Cardinal O'Connell.
The connection ties Kirk to one of the odder stories now unfolding in town, as the Archdiocese of Boston seeks to disinter the cardinal's remains and remove them from land that the church sold to Boston College to raise money to pay off victims of clergy sexual abuse. The saga of the cardinal's tomb, which has been playing out for five years now, last week moved to Suffolk Probate and Family Court, where Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, joined by the trustees of Boston College, are suing 30 of O'Connell's living relatives, including Kirk, for the right to relocate the remains.
I last spoke with Kirk about his famous great-uncle about a year and a half ago. Kirk was born in 1938, and the cardinal died in 1944, so they didn't spend a lot of time together, and the memories have faded, but Kirk told me he remembered, as a little boy, visiting Cardinal O'Connell at his grand residence in Brighton (also now the property of BC), and that his most distinct memory was of reciting the pledge of allegiance for his great-uncle. At the time of our interview last year, Kirk was opposed to relocating the cardinal's remains, saying, "I think I speak for the majority of the cardinal's next of kin in saying that we would like him to remain at his chosen resting place.''
Kirk hasn't been taking calls in recent days, but I spoke this morning with his younger brother, Edward W. Kirk, who told me that Cardinal O'Connell presided at the 1934 marriage of the Kirk boys' parents, Josephine O'Connell and Paul G. Kirk, at a chapel at the cardinal's residence in Brighton. The elder Kirk went on to become a longtime Superior Court judge and then a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, and "was a great admirer of the cardinal,'' Ed Kirk told me. To mark that admiration, the elder Kirk placed two plaques on the flagpole of the Kirk family's summer house on Wequaquet Lake on Cape Cod, one bearing the name of the cardinal, and the other that of the Rev. Jeremiah F. Minihan, an O'Connell aide and Kirk friend who went on to become an auxiliary bishop in Boston. When the Kirk family sold the Centerville house, Paul G. Kirk Jr. removed the plaques for safekeeping, and the O'Connell tributes are now mounted on a flagpole in the yard of the interim senator's own house on Mystic Lake in Marstons Mills.
(Photo at top, from the Boston Globe's archives, shows Cardinal William H. O'Connell of Boston in 1943. Photo at bottom, by Adam Hunger/Reuters, shows Paul G. Kirk Jr. at the State House in Boston on Sept. 24, 2009.)