Cause for Beatification of Miracle-Working ‘Cobbler of Notre Dame’ Moves Forward

The secret of Holy Cross Brother Columba O’Neill’s sanctity, according to his superior, was his ‘humility, love of neighbor, confidence in God, lively faith, devotion to the Sacred Heart, life of prayer [and] of poverty’

Brother Columba O’Neill (inset) and the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana
Brother Columba O’Neill (inset) and the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana (photo: Shutterstock / Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend)

On June 24 this past summer, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, formally introduced the cause of Holy Cross Brother Columba O’Neill.

John O’Neill was born to Irish immigrant parents in Mackeysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1848; he was born with a club foot, which left him unable to work in the family trade of coal mining. In a culture where being able to wield a pickax to extract coal was seen as a sign of one’s worthiness as a man, this was a considerable burden and humiliation for young John. He couldn’t even use a hand pick to extract slate from coal.

By Divine Providence, he was able to apprentice himself to the village cobbler and served in this capacity throughout the 1860s. This was the time of the Civil War, and he and his boss were kept busy by the need for strong, reliable shoes.

His apprenticeship ended, and he became an itinerant cobbler, a highly demanded position in a growing but sparsely populated country, especially in the West. John practiced his trade in places such as Denver and San Francisco. He attended daily Mass and received daily Communion, which was unusual at the time. On Sundays, he spent large parts of the day in church praying before the Blessed Sacrament.

John had resolved at age 14 to enter any religious order that would take him. He applied to at least one order that rejected him outright because of his foot condition.

Then, according to his diocesan online biography:

[He learned] of the Congregation of Holy Cross from another itinerant cobbler, Johnnie O’Brien, who encountered Holy Cross during his time as an apprentice in the shoemaker shop of the Manual Labor School at Notre Dame. The stories John had heard from O’Brien about Notre Dame’s working brothers teaching ‘blacksmithing, tailoring, carpentering and many other trades’ led John to consider that perhaps his vocation might involve joining this ‘great band of men.’ At around the time of [his father]’s death in Mackeysburg in 1873, John grew ‘dissatisfied’ with [California] and wrote to the novice master at Notre Dame, Father Augustin Louage, CSC, ‘to find out if [Holy Cross] was the community he had been seeking for such a long time.’

Indeed, it was, and he entered the Holy Cross novitiate at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 1874, at age 33, taking the name Columba. Although he never obtained even a high-school degree, he was highly sought after. This was especially because of his reported ability to cure people from illnesses and afflictions by his prayers. He never took credit for this himself, rather attributing the healings to his “intercession to the Sacred Heart of Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”

Columba served as a cobbler for 38 years at Notre Dame. He also attended to the sick at night. His superior wrote that Columba was known for his “humility, love of neighbor, confidence in God, lively faith, devotion to the Sacred Heart, life of prayer, of poverty ... and all realized that in these was found the secret of his sanctity.”

He also kept the post office busy. The Midwest Province of Brothers Archives contains roughly 14,000 letters written to him, and his diary says that 1,400 of these reference healings or cures due to his intercession.

According to the website for his cause:

Brother Columba died in the infirmary of the Community House — now called Columba Hall — on the campus of the University of Notre Dame on November 20, 1923, from the effects of Spanish Influenza contracted in 1918. His death was reported around the United States, Canada and throughout Europe. For many years after his death, the faithful continued to visit his grave at Notre Dame, often removing dirt from it. From the year of his death through 1960, there was an active Apostolate of Brother Columba and the Sacred Heart. His apostolate and cause for canonization has been revived in 2020.

According to the Holy Cross Congregation’s announcement of the beatification cause’s opening:

On receiving the news of the opening of Br. Columba’s cause, Br. Kenneth Haders, C.S.C., Provincial of the Midwest Province, said that he was ‘inspired that we may have another Holy Cross Brother who may be a saint — a brother whose ministry was to work with his hands and to pray with his full heart.’
Likewise, Fr. Robert Epping, C.S.C., Superior General, in his letter to the Congregation announcing the new Servant of God for the Congregation said, ‘May God be praised by the holy life of this Holy Cross Brother of ours.’

In his decree opening the beatification cause, Bishop Rhoades wrote:

Testimony shows that Brother Columba was unfailing in the exercise of the cardinal and theological virtues, in purity and integrity of life, and in his witness to the love and humility of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Such witness, if officially recognized by the Church, would help and inspire the people of God in responding to the call to holiness through loving trust and humble confidence in Jesus and Mary and through love of neighbor, especially those who are suffering or in need. His witness would help invigorate renewed devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary among the faithful. His witness would also highlight the vocation of the religious brother and inspire more vocations.