September 10, 2021

‘He lived life for others’

Outpouring of love fulfills priest’s dream to give struggling women hope and a home

The smiling image of the late Father Glenn O’Connor greets people near the entrance of the new Seeds of Hope residence center on the grounds of St. Joseph Parish in Indianapolis. The archdiocesan priest started the Seeds of Hope program in 1999 to help women overcome their struggles with drugs and alcohol. Standing near the tribute to Father O’Connor are Marvetta Grimes, the executive director of Seeds of Hope, and Sean O’Connor, one of the priest’s seven siblings. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

The smiling image of the late Father Glenn O’Connor greets people near the entrance of the new Seeds of Hope residence center on the grounds of St. Joseph Parish in Indianapolis. The archdiocesan priest started the Seeds of Hope program in 1999 to help women overcome their struggles with drugs and alcohol. Standing near the tribute to Father O’Connor are Marvetta Grimes, the executive director of Seeds of Hope, and Sean O’Connor, one of the priest’s seven siblings. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

Cassie Stewart never met the late Father Glenn O’Connor, but she believes that his dream not only changed her life, it has saved her.

Before his death in 2019 at the age of 66, Father O’Connor spent his 39 years as a priest using his deep faith, his Irish joy and his love for the underdog to try to bring people closer to God and their potential.

And nowhere is that purpose more evident than in Seeds of Hope, the faith-based recovery program that he founded on the grounds of St. Joseph Parish in Indianapolis in 1999—a program designed to help women who are addicted to drugs and alcohol overcome their addictions, reunite with their families and start their lives anew.

At 29, Stewart is one of the more than 800 women who have benefitted from the Seeds of Hope dream that Father O’Connor had for them.

“I did time in prison, got out and relapsed. Got sent back to jail,” she recalls. “God did for me what I couldn’t do for myself. He got me into treatment. That’s why I’m here. Now, every dream I’ve ever had is coming true right now. I’m sober. I have a relationship with God. I work in recovery. I have a very good relationship with my family. I’m saving up to buy a house.

“It brings tears to my eyes.”

As she shares her story, Stewart is sitting in a place that is one of Father O’Connor’s last dreams—a dream that has become a reality through a monumental outpouring of love for the priest.

‘This is what he wanted for them’

The fulfillment of that dream is a new, two-story, red-brick building that just opened in July—a stunning addition to Seeds of Hope that Father O’Connor longed to create before he died of cancer.

For its first 20 years, Seeds of Hope had provided a transitional residence center for the women in the program, but the priest wanted to have what he called a “three-quarter house”—a place where the women could live for another 18 months after they completed the program and before they immersed themselves in society.

Before this new facility, the women were scared of going back into the world and relapsing, says Marvetta Grimes, the longtime executive director of Seeds of Hope who is also a successful graduate of the program.

Grimes remembers how Father O’Connor would listen as the women shared how they wanted to stay clean of drugs—but that once they graduated from the program, they would return to the places where they had lived before, where drugs were still readily available.

“He saw their tears and how scared they were,” she says. “This is what he wanted for them. He just ran out of time.”

After his death, others raced forward to honor his life and his vision, including his siblings. A week after the funeral of Father O’Connor—the oldest of eight children—his brother Sean asked to join the Seeds of Hope board. When he did, he proposed what became a turning point—giving up the plan of trying to get a federal grant for the project and “just raising the money ourselves.”

Yet even Sean was stunned by what happened eight months later at the annual Seeds of Hope fundraiser. In a usual year, the fundraiser nets $50,000. In 2019, it raised $800,000, plus in-kind contributions of material and labor from contractors and sub-contractors to build the three-quarter house and also to completely furnish the 22 apartments within it for the women.

“It was emotional,” Sean recalls. “People opened their hearts and wallets. Glenn was there in spirit.”

An unusual twist and a lasting tribute

The fundraiser involved a twist: When someone or some group donated at least $20,000 for one of the apartments, that donation was recognized with a sign near the door of the apartment. The same was true for a donation of at least $50,000 to fund one of the two family rooms in the building.

While it’s likely that many of those large donations would have been made without the incentive of the sponsor signs, the signs do capture the variety of people and organizations who wanted to help make Father O’Connor’s dream come true. Among them are the Indianapolis Colts, Father O’Connor’s siblings and his fellow priests of the archdiocese.

Another contribution honored Father O’Connor’s longtime commitment as a pit crew member for IndyCar racing teams at the Indianapolis 500. That one came from the Benevolent Fund of Motor Sports, an organization that offers financial support to members of the IndyCar racing community and their families when their lives have been impacted by death, injury or illness.

Grimes was especially touched by one donation—in honor of Jim McCaughna, a member of the Indianapolis chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish heritage organization that embraced Father O’Connor as much as he embraced it.

“Jim passed away, so his wife bought a room in honor of him,” Grimes says.

Sean believes his brother would also appreciate one other aspect of the new three-quarter house.

“We got this done without any debt,” Sean says. “That’s what he would really be fired up about.”

Still, there is one part of the building that Father O’Connor would hate, according to both his brother and Grimes.

‘Father and the Church had enough faith in us’

That’s the sign outside the facility that proclaims its name—“The Father Glenn O’Connor Home.”

“He wouldn’t like that, but he dreamed this,” Sean says. “It’s not his mojo, but it’s ours.”

As he talks, Sean sits inside the facility, at a table near a wall that offers a collage of small photos that include Father O’Connor water-skiing, working as a pit crew member and shaking hands with the late St. Pope John Paul II. In most of those photos, the priest is flashing his trademark smile, the one that embraced his joy in life and the one that also embraced his joy of mischief.

That smile is also captured in the larger-than-life image of him near the entrance of the three-quarter house. Again, Sean and Grimes believe it’s a tribute that Father O’Connor would have resisted, but they have their memories and their stories of him, and he’ll just have to forgive them and so many others who want to make sure he is remembered for the way he approached his life and his faith.

“After he died, we had ‘Live Like Father Glenn’ bracelets and T-shirts made,” Sean says. “One of his nieces was walking in downtown Indianapolis with a ‘Live Like Father Glenn’ T-shirt, and a homeless guy saw the shirt and said, ‘I love that guy.’ I don’t know what he did for him, but….”

Grimes quickly chimes in, “He would give them a couple dollars. He would get them something to eat. He would talk to them about recovery. He was just there to help.”

She’s on a roll now, turning her thoughts to the way his compassion focused on the women who came to Seeds of Hope.

“I believe that Father Glenn and the Church had more faith in them than the women coming here,” she says. “The women didn’t have faith in anything. Father and the Church had enough faith in us to recover and live life until we had our own faith. And he moved mountains to do it.”

Sean nods and adds, “He was the most Christ-like person I’ve ever encountered, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my brother. At Christmas, we couldn’t give him anything nice because he would turn around and give it away. One of his parishes gave him a new car, and he gave it away.

“It’s ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ That’s how he lived. This place is a continuation of that. He lived life for others.”

Cassie Stewart now knows that she’s part of his legacy.

As one of the first residents in The Father Glenn O’Connor Home, Stewart believes it’s the transition she needs—giving her a combination of structure and freedom—before she reaches toward her goal of having her own home.

As she carves out a new life for herself, she’s ever grateful to the priest she never met and to the God who is always with her.

“This is what I dreamed of when I was in a jail cell. Doing something on my own. Making a life of my own,” she says. “God is with me. God is shining down on me.” †

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