Msgr. Dennis O'Donovan
Msgr. Dennis O'Donovan

He had his heart set on being a parish priest for the rest of his life. But when the call came, Msgr. Dennis O’Donovan said yes, and he would help steer the ship during the stormiest period in Archdiocese of Portland history. 

Born in Omaha, he attended Conception Seminary in Missouri, and St. Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana. He professed vows as a Benedictine at Mount Michael Abbey in Elkhorn, Nebraska, and was ordained a priest there on May 10, 1969.

He taught for 10 years at the Benedictine high school in Elkhorn and

was dean of students. That was when he felt called to parish life. He had taken classes at the University of Oregon and remembered the area with fondness. He came west in 1979 and by 1982 decided to become a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland.

“It just felt right, right away,” he said of his arrival 40 years ago. He is now 78.

Msgr. O’Donovan had served at St. Mary Parish in Albany, St. Anthony in Forest Grove, St. Cecilia in Beaverton and St. Philip Benizi in Redland when Archbishop John Vlazny called him in for a visit in 2000. The archbishop asked him to become his chief aide — vicar general of the archdiocese.

One of his first tasks was to go to a courthouse where discussions about clergy sex abuse lawsuits were underway. Even before the Boston revelations and the Dallas Charter, Msgr. O’Donovan was on a committee with several Oregon survivors who helped craft an archdiocesan policy on sexual abuse, one of the first in the nation. Msgr. O’Donovan immediately liked and appreciated the survivors and has lifelong respect for them.

In his 13 years as vicar general, much of it was devoted to handling and healing wounds from abuse and helping the archdiocese address the problems.

It was grueling, and he often wished he were a parish priest, but working alongside Archbishop Vlazny made it worthwhile, he said. “I was so inspired by him,” the monsignor said.

He had overcome storms before.

In 1995, during a viciously windy Our Lady of Guadalupe Day, he was running from the parish offices to the church when a gust toppled a 40-foot-tall spruce. The tree was so close to mashing him that it tore off his eyeglasses sent him off balance. Branches caught power lines and sent them sparking toward him.

“Fortunately, I’ve got a hard enough head,” he told the Sentinel, nursing a lump on his scalp. “If I had been a couple feet back, well....”

He got busy in parishes, overseeing construction of a 10,000 square-foot parish center in Forest Grove, leading rosaries outside abortion clinics and blessing a playground at St. Cecilia. He led retreats at Our Lady of Peace Retreat in Beaverton and offered faith formation courses, including a series on the history of the Eucharist. 

He established round-the-clock eucharistic adoration at St. Cecilia. In the grocery store a woman ran up to him and thanked him enthusiastically because the prayer time had brought her family closer.

In 1999, the people of St. Cecilia offered a tearful farewell. “I can’t begin to convey to you the type of man and pastor it takes to successfully operate the second-largest parish and school in the archdiocese,” pastoral council member Mike Palazzo told the Sentinel. “Father Dennis O'Donovan is all of that, and more.”

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI named him a monsignor.

Now, as a retiree in Phoenix, where he has family, he does much more than lounge by a pool. He says Mass every weekend at one of the city’s large parishes and has become chaplain for a community of Dominican Sisters.