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For La Jolla priest ‘Father Jerry,’ this Christmas closes a chapter but opens another as he plans retirement

The Rev. Raymond “Jerry” O’Donnell, who has been a priest for 48 years, is pastor at All Hallows Catholic Church in La Jolla.
The Rev. Raymond “Jerry” O’Donnell, who has been a priest for 48 years, is pastor at All Hallows Catholic Church in La Jolla.
(Kristian Carreon)

The Rev. Raymond O’Donnell of All Hallows Catholic Church is preparing to celebrate his last Christmas as pastor before his planned retirement in June.

On this last Christmas before he retires, in his 48th year of presiding over hallelujahs and not-so-silent nights, the Rev. Raymond O’Donnell — “Father Jerry” to his flock — will stand before parishioners and visitors to deliver his homily for the sacred Christian holiday.

He will begin by talking about his dog.

O’Donnell will share with folks that he has no idea why his dog, a 9-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel named Monsignor, has to smell every bush and every tree. He couldn’t know unless he became a dog himself.

Then he will transition from dog to God — and the crux of Christmas.

God had the same dilemma, he will say. He imagines God asking himself, “How do I tell these people, these wonderful creatures I created, how much I love them in a way they can understand, unless I become one of them?”

And so, Jesus was born.

O’Donnell will give this homily on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at All Hallows Catholic Church in La Jolla, where he has been pastor the past 16 years.

O’Donnell, who is 74 with hair as white as the clerical collar on his neck, sat in his office, flanked by his beloved Native American artwork, talking about his nearly half-century as a Catholic priest in the San Diego diocese and about his Christmases past, present and future.

Christmas past

O’Donnell’s mother was nearing the end of her life. She had dementia and was bedridden much of the time. On that Christmas years ago, he said Mass for her in the bedroom, with his father and sister and the mother’s caregiver.

When he suggested they sing “Silent Night,” something miraculous happened.

“Mom, who often thought I was her tennis instructor, knew every verse of ‘Silent Night.’ I was just astonished.”

It is one of his favorite Christmas carols and every time he hears it, he thinks of his mother.

His other favorite carol is a more contemporary one, “Stars Flung Like Diamonds,” written by the Eev. Michael Joncas, a Minnesota priest and composer of church hymns.

“It’s beautiful,” said O’Donnell, his voice starting to choke with emotion as he talked about it. “It has really sound theology and beautiful poetic imagery and I just love it so much.”

Being a priest at Christmas comes with a schedule that can rival Santa Claus. Last year, for example, with All Hallows packed to overflowing, O’Donnell said four Masses on Christmas Eve and two on Christmas Day. He estimates upward of 1,500 people participated.

He said Christmas is one of the toughest times to preach. “You’re preaching to the choir [the regulars] and you’re preaching to a number of people who only come on Christmas.”

He wants to make Christmas meaningful for both groups — to give them something to think about and take home and perhaps make a new Christmas memory.

Christmas present

A wistfulness crept into O’Donnell’s voice as he said, “I don’t think we’re going to be singing any Christmas carols this year.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen to that. In compliance with directions from the state and the diocese, he’s holding Masses outdoors. Parishioners wear masks and are socially distanced. Music is provided by a cantor and an accompanist.

O’Donnell also posts a daily video on All Hallows’ website, hoping to stay connected to parishioners who feel safer apart. “It’s really sad,” he said. “There are people I hope I’ll see again sometime, but there are people who are just scared to death to come to Mass.”

He’s been spending Advent, the four-week season of preparation for Christmas, trying to boost the spirits of his flock with upbeat messages online and at Mass.

In one, O’Donnell told the story of a church’s Nativity pageant. When the angels were summoned forward, children dressed in white rose from the pews and crowded around the stable scene at the front. One of the littlest angels was at the rear of the crowd, jockeying and straining to get a glimpse of the baby Jesus.

Finally, frustrated and exasperated, the little girl yelled, “Let Jesus show!”

“May that little angel’s cry be our own prayer,” O’Donnell said.

“What I’m trying to say is, let them see Jesus by the way you forgive, by the way you love, by the way you reach out to the poor,” he added. “Even if you can make [the world] a teensy-weeny bit better, then you’ve done what you’re supposed to do.”

He anticipates fewer people will attend holiday Masses this year — partly because of the regional stay-at-home mandate issued this month and partly because “it is dark and cold” outdoors. So, All Hallows will hold one less service on Christmas Eve and one fewer Mass on Christmas Day. In addition, a recorded Christmas Mass will be posted on the church’s website Christmas Eve through Christmas Day.

Christmas future

Since his ordination in 1972 at St. Rose of Lima in Chula Vista, O’Donnell has worked at the Catholic diocese, taught in the seminary and served three parishes, including being the founding pastor of St. Luke Catholic Church in Rancho San Diego.

He speaks reverently of the faith parishioners have put in him over the past 48 years. “To be invited into people’s innermost lives just because you are wearing a little piece of white plastic around your neck is awesome to me,” he said. “The trust that people have really moves me to tears sometimes.”

His plan for when he retires in June is to move into a condominium he owns and do some traveling if the pandemic is under control by then. Maybe he’ll go to New Mexico for Santa Fe’s Canyon Road Farolito Walk on Christmas Eve and to Yosemite National Park for its Bracebridge Dinner Christmas pageant.

He also wants to continue to help as needed in parishes here. “I will be a priest forever,” he said. “That’s who I am. It’s my last Christmas as a pastor, but not as a priest.” ◆