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Firm in His Faith

updated 05/22/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/22/2000 01:00AM

Eight-year-old Alexander Garrett didn't have a ticket to the funeral of John Cardinal O'Connor of New York, but that didn't stop him from attending. Born with one leg because of a rare disorder known as VATER Syndrome, Alexander first met the late cardinal at a Labor Day parade in 1995 and saw him again after a mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral three years later. "He gave me his rosary and asked me if I would pray for him," says Alexander. So he prayed, and after plans were announced for the cardinal's funeral mass on May 8, Alexander and his father showed up early at St. Patrick's. Police let them in. "I'm here to see him for the last time," said Alexander, who sat in a front-row chair set up just for him.

Young Alexander may have had the best seat in the house—a better seat, even, than the President—but his heartfelt desire to say goodbye was shared by millions. O'Connor, who died on May 3 at age 80 after an eight-month battle with cancer, never shied from controversy during his 16-year tenure as archbishop of New York, most notably in his unwavering defense of church teaching on charged issues including abortion and homosexuality. But to his legions of fans, both Catholic and not, he was a beacon of moral authority as well as a prince of the church. As William Cardinal Baum, an American representative of the Vatican, put it during the three-hour service, O'Connor "served the rich, the poor, the powerful, the powerless."

A Philadelphia native who left high school at 16 to begin preparing for the priesthood, O'Connor started his-career as a parish priest and a teacher in a Catholic high school, then served 27 years as a military chaplain. He was bishop of Scranton, Pa., and relatively unknown in the church hierarchy when Pope John Paul II tapped him to head the archdiocese of New York in 1984. O'Connor relished the power of his big-city pulpit, threatening Catholic politicians with excommunication for favoring a woman's right to abortion.

But he was far more than just a hard-shell church conservative. He was equally adamant in his support of trade unions, homeless people and the disabled, especially children. During the height of the AIDS crisis in New York City, O'Connor made unannounced late-night visits to Manhattan's St. Clare's Hospital, where he had established a ward for treating people with AIDS. "He said he talked with the patients and bathed them, took their bedpans, washed their hair," says former mayor Edward I. Koch, a close friend of O'Connor's despite their many differences of opinion over politics. "He was emotionally moved by their plight."

As the cardinal lost strength after undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor last August, he spent more time at his simply decorated four-story townhouse behind St. Patrick's Cathedral, where, a chronic insomniac, he had passed many nights reading history and theology. "He died very, very peacefully," says Bishop James McHugh of Rockville Center, N.Y., one of a dozen friends and family members who were at O'Connor's bedside when the end came. "He signaled to everyone that he was in the hands of God and whenever God was ready, he was ready to go."

Patrick Rogers
Eve Heyn in New York City

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