On August 19, 2016, Father Marvin R. O’Connell passed away in South Bend, Indiana. Author of a number of critical studies—biographical as well as historical and philosophical—O’Connell taught in the history department of the University of Notre Dame for most of his professional career. He was, strangely enough, not a member of Notre Dame’s reigning and founding order, Holy Cross, but rather a priest in the Diocese of St. Paul, Minnesota, “on loan” to Notre Dame.
Not one of his students would ever accuse Father O’Connell of softness, favoritism, or sloth. He was a fierce man, a fierce priest, and a fierce professor. He possessed perhaps the most penetrating and intelligent eyes and brow I have ever encountered in a teacher. He had a booming voice, and he loved to quote Churchill. Sometimes, he would break into a Churchill speech when trying to explain some complexity of history. Certainly, the most memorable moment in any class I took in college was O’Connell’s full recitation of Churchill’s speech of May 1940, his first speech—“the finest hour” as Prime Minister. I was fairly certain that Churchill was, in fact, standing in our classroom in O’Shannessey Hall at Notre Dame in that fall of 1988. It’s quite possible that O’Connell was shooting lasers and lightning from his eyes as he delivered this speech. Whatever it was, Father O’Connell cast a spell over the entire classroom, and we were ready to go to war against the Nazis, even if it meant our most certain death. Never have I felt a greater call to arms. When O’Connell finished, I looked around the room. There was nothing but stunned silence and a number of tears flowing from the eyes of his students.
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