Fr. Tom O’Dea (1933-2016) brought Irish faith, humor to Arizona

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Fr. Thomas O'Dea (1933-2016)
Fr. Thomas O’Dea (1933-2016)

Fr. Tom “Tot” O’Dea, whose love of poetry permeated his life and ministry, died Jan. 2, at home in his native Ireland. He was 82.

Before crossing the Atlantic Ocean for the Diocese of Tucson, Fr. O’Dea was ordained a priest in Ireland on June 7, 1958 to serve as a missionary in Arizona.

And he wasn’t alone. He was accompanied on the trip by about a dozen young men; courted from the rolling hills of Ireland to the “lush” landscape of Arizona for ministry.

Fr. O’Dea served in various parishes in Tucson and later for the Diocese of Phoenix including St. Thomas the Apostle; Queen of Peace in Mesa; St. Anthony of Padua in Casa Grande; St. Francis in Superior; St. Patrick’s in Bisbee; St. John Vianney in Goodyear; St. Matthew; Christ the King in Mesa; and Holy Spirit in Tempe.

He retired in 2003 after serving as pastor of Ascension Parish in Fountain Hills, then returned to Ireland in 2005 where he served the parish of Ballynacally for the remaining years of his life.

A native of Newmarket, Fr. O’Dea attended St. Flannan’s College in Ennis, Co. Clare, where, at 13, he met his friend of 69 years, Msgr. Michael O’Grady.

“I often wonder why we bonded so well, we were very opposite in many ways,” Msgr. O’Grady said. “I lived for athletics of every kind. Tot preferred automobiles and tractors, but somehow we connected.”

Following high school, the two attended St. Patrick’s Seminary in Carlow.

“I was a bookworm, I had to be to get through. Tot was not a textbook advocate and I wonder if he even purchased them,” Msgr. O’Grady recalled. “He learned from conversations among the students; he had a really inquiring mind and thought outside the box.”

Not unlike those he ministered to and loved, Fr. O’Dea had his own crosses to bear, embracing the spirituality of the 12-step program.

“His cross became his grace,” Msgr. O’Grady said. “Every aspect of his ministry was based on the program, to him it was the ultimate Christian way.”

Msgr. O’Grady, who spoke at his longtime friend’s funeral, said the grief of the parishioners was palpable; the church was packed and a tent was set up to seat the overflow. Friends, parishioners and a local retired bishop came to pay respects.

“A man said to me, ‘he did so much for the people of this parish, he did nothing, just loved and respected us,’” Msgr. O’Grady said. “Tot would love the ‘nothing’ bit.”

That’s because Fr. O’Dea had a wonderful sense of humor, often summarizing his own prayer life as “one Our Father, once a day.”

Msgr. O’Grady expounded how really prayerful he was. Fr. O’Dea was known for his love of “textbooks,” which was every person he ever met and for little children whose company he delighted in.

In one lasting and final tribute, a friend invited the church to recite by memory Fr. O’Dea’s favorite poem, “The Lake Isle of Inisfree,” by Irish poet William Yeats.

“So many voices joined in. It was pure prayer as Tot would pray,” Msgr. O’Grady said.

He is survived by his brother Dr. Dominic (Dommie) from Toronto, sisters Evelyn Flanagan from Ballinasloe, Phyllis O’Halloran from Cashel, and extended family members. He is preceded in death by brothers, John and Patrick, and sister Irene Neylon.

He was buried Jan. 6, on the grounds of Christ the King Church in Ballycorick, Ballynacally following the funeral Mass.

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