The Archivist’s Nook: Teacher, Rector, Soldier, Spy – A Photographic Tour of O’Connor’s Rome

Eisenhower leaving the North American College campus, as students and faculty watch below, 1959.
Eisenhower leaving the North American College campus, as students and faculty watch below, 1959.

“I am sorry that you did not travel from the College to the Ciampino airfield with the President in the helicopter; however, I have found, as I am sure you have, that riding in a helicopter is a questionable undertaking under any circumstances irrespective of who you are with,” wrote John McCone, future CIA Director, to Archbishop Martin J. O’Connor, rector of the North American College (NAC) in Rome. The occasion? The recent visit of President Eisenhower to the seminary in December 1959.

O’Connor escorting Mr. and Mrs. Nixon to an audience with Pope Paul VI, 1963. This was not Nixon’s first or last papal audience nor O’Connor’s first or last visit with Nixon.
O’Connor escorting Mr. and Mrs. Nixon to an audience with Pope Paul VI, 1963. This was not Nixon’s first or last papal audience nor O’Connor’s first or last visit with Nixon.

In the fall of 1959, the North American College in Rome celebrated its 100th anniversary. Founded in 1859 by Pope Pius IX, the Pontifical North American College had much to celebrate that year. Having been devastated during the Second World War, much like the surrounding city, the school had been in a precarious position just a decade prior. Now, it stood rebuilt on the Janiculum Hill, serving as a nexus point not only for seminarians, but also representatives of American power and the Vatican. And at the center of it all was Archbishop O’Connor.

Known as the Oakball, or Oaky, by his students and faculty, O’Connor (1900-1986) became the “second founder” of the NAC. [1] A native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, O’Connor was a World War I veteran, attended CUA and the NAC, served as an official press representative for Vatican II, and even became the first Papal Nuncio to Malta. Wrangling the assorted personalities, factions, and financial resources to rebuild the school and put it on stable footing was no easy task, but O’Connor proved capable of weathering the challenge.

NAC students inspecting an inscription in the Forum, 1954.
NAC students inspecting an inscription in the Forum, 1954.

In addition to his role as rector from 1946-1964, he served as an intermediary between Americans visiting Rome and the Vatican. While this role included pilgrim groups, it also lent itself to involvement with film studios, intelligence agencies, presidents, and Church hierarchy. To put it bluntly, O’Connor found himself front and center in the intrigue of Cold War politics. The NAC played a central role in the post-war politics of Rome. The College served as a conduit through which contacts and funds could flow from various American institutions – from Hollywood studios to the CIA – to assist in the rebuilding of the Italian economy and civil society. O’Connor, as the rector of the College, became a mediator between the power of the Vatican and the power of the United States.

O’Connor was not afraid to get in front of the camera. Filming in St. Peter’s Square for the CBS Series, Person-to-Person, 1960.
O’Connor was not afraid to get in front of the camera. Filming in St. Peter’s Square for the CBS Series, Person-to-Person, 1960.

But O’Connor was not only a host of and translator for dignitaries, he also served as the president of the Pontifical Commission for Motion Pictures – later known as the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications – from 1948 until his retirement in 1971. In this capacity he was instrumental in defining Vatican policy toward the film, television, and radio industries. He also was present during the Second Vatican Council, helping with the public affairs for the opening of the Council.

In addition to his personal papers, the Archives houses 26 albums of photographs chronicling O’Connor’s time in Rome from 1947-1971. (With approximately 3400 images, it was a real challenge narrowing down to only a few photos for this post!) Recording everything from canonization masses to O’Connor’s bedridden bout with a cold, the albums are a detailed chronicle of the bishop’s activities. The same album can highlight Queen Elizabeth’s papal audience followed by images of a local high school graduation. Given his penchant for collecting images of both the extraordinary and the routine, O’Connor likely would have been a fan of InstagramThe photographs are slated to be digitized and made available online.


[1] Msgr. Stephen DiGiovanni. The Second Founder: Bishop Martin J. O’Connor and the Pontifical North American College (Trafford Publishing, 2013).

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