Research Uncovers Former New York Archbishop’s Jewish Roots

Cardinal John O'Connor laughs as his congregation sings 'Happy Birthday' to him towards the end of Mass Sunday, Jan.16, 2000, at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. The Cardinal celebrated his 80th birthday yesterday. O'Connor, the oldest active bishop in the United States, is regarded as one of the most powerful Catholics in America. O'Connor said he anticipates being relieved of his post in the near future, but promised not to disappear from the public's view. (AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett) 01/17/2000 Library tag national/foreign 01172000
Cardinal John O'Connor laughed as his congregation sings 'Happy Birthday' to him towards the end of Mass on, Jan.16, 2000, at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. The Cardinal celebrated his 80th birthday.
Suzanne Plunkett/AP file photo

The youngest sister of Cardinal John J. O’Connor, who spent 16 years as the Catholic archbishop of New York, has recently discovered something she and her siblings never knew—their mother was born Jewish, The New York Times reports.

[Mary O'Connor Ward-Donegan], who lives in Ridley Park, Pa., said she only began digging into her roots after her daughter, [ Eileen Ward Christian], gave her a paid subscription to Ancestry.com, an online fount of genealogical records, for Mother's Day two years ago. The two women were planning a trip to Ireland and wanted to read up on their ancestors before they went. "This is how it all started," said Mrs. Ward-Donegan. "I started building trees on my father's side of the family, and for my mother's side of the family, it was really difficult to find anything."

Ward-Donegan used the genealogy search engine and her own extensive research to make the discovery.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The first clue came when Ward-Donegan learned her mother’s side of the family was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Connecticut, and her daughter came across some headstones online inscribed in Hebrew. Those headstones turned out to be for Ward-Donegan’s Prussian-born maternal grandparents, Gustave Gumpel and his wife, Tina Ruben.

According to the Times, the cemetery, which is owned by the Bridgeport synagogue B’nai Israel, would not have buried someone who was not Jewish at the time of the Gumpels’ deaths—now, the cemetery will accept a members’ non-Jewish spouse for burial.

Archive information from B’nai Israel showed Gustave Gumpel was also a rabbi at the synagogue. Other records indicated that Tina Gumpel died young (at age 30) and her youngest child, Dorothy, converted to Catholicism as an adult and later married Thomas O’Connor.

There is no indication Cardinal O’Connor, who died in 2000, knew about his Jewish lineage, according to the Times.

"The basic fact is, my mother was Jewish," said Mary O?Connor Ward-Donegan, the cardinal?s 87-year-old sister. Observing the Jewish matrilineal tradition, she added, "That means my two brothers were Jewish, my sister was Jewish and I am Jewish. Of that I am very proud."