The formal process for sainthood has begun for Holy Cross Brother Columba O’Neill, C.S.C., a humble cobbler who worked at the University of Notre Dame and served as a confrere of the University’s founder, Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C.
According to an announcement on Friday (June 24) from the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Brother Columba’s religious life of poverty, chastity and obedience was truly exemplary.
“Brother Columba’s sincere and deep devotion and complete trust in the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary were profound, reminiscent of St. Andre Bessette’s deep devotion to St. Joseph,” said Bishop Kevin Rhoades. “[His] life was a testimony of what it means to live Jesus’ injunction: ‘Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.’ His simple and childlike faith and his meekness and humility are evident in his letters and in the testimony of his superiors and his brothers in religious life.”
“Brother Columba truly lived a life of heroic service — not only to the students, faculty and leaders of Notre Dame, but to the hundreds of people in need he corresponded with across the country,” said Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., president of the University of Notre Dame.
“His boundless devotion, his sincere humility and the power of his prayer are evidence of his saintly character,” Father Jenkins said. “We are inspired by his fidelity to the Notre Dame community and solidarity with those in need, and can learn much from his example about what it means to live a good and holy life. We are deeply grateful to Bishop Rhoades for accepting the petition for Brother Columba’s canonization.”
Born in 1848 in Mackeysburg, Pennsylvania, John O’Neill entered the Congregation of Holy Cross, the religious order that founded Notre Dame, in 1874 after meeting with Father Sorin. Upon taking his final vows, he took the religious name Columba, as was traditional at the time. He then served in the St. Joseph Orphan Asylum in Lafayette, Indiana, for nine years before returning to work on the University’s campus in 1885.
Brother Columba, who was born with a foot deformity and walked with a dramatic limp, worked to repair shoes and create specialized shoes for those with foot and ankle problems. He was also assigned to care for Father Sorin as a nurse and caregiver from 1891 until Father Sorin’s death in 1893.
In approximately 1890, Brother Columba began making images of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and Sacred Heart badges, which he shared with Notre Dame students when they came to pick up their shoes. He made more than 10,000 images of Mary and 30,000 Sacred Heart badges in total, which he often distributed with instructions to pray a novena, and cures began to be reported throughout the South Bend area and beyond.
As word spread, letters began to pour in from those seeking his help. Although Brother Columba had a limited education, he sought to reply to each letter personally.
Brother Philip Smith, C.S.C., an archivist in the Midwest Province of the Congregation of Holy Cross, formally lodged the petition for canonization last fall and serves as postulator of the cause. Brother Smith has curated more than 10,000 letters to and from Brother Columba thanking him for his prayers, badges and cures — ranging from relief from chronic headaches to cures for blindness, deafness, cancer and polio.
Brother Columba was remarkable for several reasons, according to Brother Smith, including his dedication to Mary and her Immaculate Heart, his even greater love for the Sacred Heart of Jesus and, most remarkably, his ability to pray for favors and cures through the intercession of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
“He was a common man who lived a very uncommon life,” Brother Smith said. “He was very down to earth. You know, in one letter, he enjoyed the fact that someone gave him a cigar. In another, a woman suggests that if he comes to visit, they'll make his favorite meal, corned beef and cabbage.
“But the uncommon part was that he had such a sincere, childlike devotion to the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of Mary that he was not really surprised that these cures took place. He may have been surprised that he was the vehicle, but he was not shocked at all that these things not only happened, but happened with a tremendous amount of frequency.”
Brother Columba, who came to be known as the “Miracle Man of Notre Dame,” continued to serve as a cobbler and healer until he contracted influenza in 1920. He never fully recovered and died in the Community House on campus — now known as Columba Hall — on Nov. 20, 1923. His funeral was widely attended, and letters thanking him continued to arrive at the Notre Dame Post Office through 1926.
After being declared a Servant of God, the next step toward sainthood comes when the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints examines the evidence of Brother Columba’s holiness and work. If approved, his case will be passed to Pope Francis who will decide if he lived a life of “heroic virtue,” at which point he may be called Venerable. The final two steps, which require evidence of miracles occurring after the candidate’s death, are beatification and canonization.
Brother Columba follows in the footsteps of St. André Bessette, who became the Congregation’s first canonized saint in 2010. The founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Blessed Basil Moreau, was beatified in 2007.
“Brother Columba is an example we all need, especially right now when our nation is so polarized,” Brother Smith said. “He had a need to respond to the pain — physical, spiritual or psychological — of anyone who wrote to him, whether they were Catholic or Protestant, learned or uneducated, rich or poor. He never turned anyone away. The common denominator was that if they acted with faith, as he instructed them, good things would follow. And we need that lesson today.”