While in Uruguay, O’Hara was educated at the Jesuit University in Montevideo. While tending to his studies, he also served as the secretary to the U.S. Minister to Uruguay, starting at the age of 17. O’Hara’s time in Latin America provided him with a strong command of the Spanish language and a great understanding of Latin American culture.
O’Hara lived in Latin America for three years, returning to the U.S. in 1908 at the age of 20. Although he had an education superior to that of most Americans and a wealth of unique experiences, he earned no diploma or certificate with which he could apply for further studies. So, at the urging of a friend, O’Hara traveled to South Bend, Ind. to speak with Fr. John Cavanaugh, president of Notre Dame. Hearing of O’Hara’s skills in Spanish, Fr. Cavanaugh offered him a position teaching Spanish to high-school students at Notre Dame to defray the costs of tuition and board. O’Hara began his education at Notre Dame in January of 1909. Having had no education in Greek, a prerequisite for pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree at Notre Dame, he pursued a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and History. He became very active on campus, participating in oratory, debate and inter-hall track competitions. Perhaps O’Hara’s greatest contribution to Notre Dame as a student was his introduction of the practice of frequent or daily Communion to the campus in 1911, a practice he continued to support during his time as Prefect of Religion at Notre Dame. The history of this practice is recounted in Notre Dame: One Hundred Years by Arthur J. Hope, C.S.C.
After graduating in 1912, O’Hara entered the novitiate for the Congregation of Holy Cross. In 1913, he began his theological studies for the priesthood at Holy Cross College in Washington, D.C. Fr. Cavanaugh had recognized O’Hara’s outstanding scholarship of Latin America while O’Hara was a student and high-school teacher at Notre Dame. Fr. Cavanaugh encouraged O’Hara to pursue his interest in Latin America while at Holy Cross. O’Hara’s scholarship developed with the aid of Fr. John Zahm, another student of Latin America. Fr. Cavanaugh and Fr. Zahm had it in mind to bring O’Hara back to Notre Dame to develop a course in Latin American studies. Because of his talent and maturity, Fr. Cavanaugh and Fr. Zahm thought it best to have O’Hara ordained early. Fr. Cavanaugh sent a letter to O’Hara in 1916 informing him of his future: “I hope to have [at Notre Dame] next year the best Spanish teacher in the United States. I may inform you that his home is in Indiana and he is to be ordained in September. His name is Señor Juan O’Hara and he is an old friend of mine.” O’Hara was ordained on September 9, 1916. After his ordination, Fr. O’Hara completed his final year of theological studies and developed the courses in Latin American studies he would begin teaching at Notre Dame in 1917.
Upon returning to Notre Dame, Fr. O’Hara was appointed Prefect of Religion a position where he exerted his influence. He extended his personal care to every boy who crossed his path at Notre Dame; he was interested in the spiritual well-being of each student, a fact that the students themselves recognized. Under Fr. O’Hara’s leadership, the practice of daily Communion flourished on campus. The value of this practice was recognized by nearly all of Notre Dame’s men, even the football players. Traveling by train to a game against West Point in 1921, players Paul Castner and Roger Kiley realized that they would be traveling over a First Friday and would be unable to receive Communion. (It is a longstanding tradition in the Catholic Church to attend Mass on the first Friday of each month and receive the Eucharist in an act of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus). They expressed their wish to receive Communion to Fr. O’Hara. On the way to West Point, Fr. O’Hara sent word to a priest-friend in Albany, NY. The team stopped on the way to West Point at Albany to receive Communion at the Grotto of Lourdes there. News of the team’s unusual stop made national headlines. In keeping with this tradition begun by Fr. O’Hara’s team, the football team has had the opportunity to receive Communion during trips to away games since this trip in 1921. Because of his dedication to serving and caring for the spiritual needs of the men of Notre Dame, Franklyn Doan wrote of his influence in 1926:
“…Only the silent night remains and every one has gone to his rest—except one. He’s Fr. O’Hara and even the silent night cannot entice him from his duties. On, on, and on he labors, nor does the still night detract him if duty calls.…In one man, Notre Dame spirit is lifeblood. It flows throughout his system into remote corners of his body an urge of service. That man is Fr. O’Hara....Notre Dame wins her victories in the basement chapel. Down in the worn alcove of worship. They pray and intercede, not that their team will win but that it may fight like real Notre Dame men—and win if God so wills.It must be that Fr. O’Hara will ever work and pray and labor for that sacred ideal—Notre Dame and her men.”
Fr. O’Hara served as Prefect of Religion until 1933 when he was elected Vice-President of Notre Dame. During this year Fr. Charles O'Donnell fell gravely ill, making Fr. O’Hara acting president. In 1934, he was elected to the office of president. Notre Dame grew and flourished under Fr. O’Hara’s leadership, adding a number of new buildings and programs, including the first graduate programs at Notre Dame. His tenure as president came to an end when he was appointed Bishop of the Military and titular Bishop of Mylasa in 1939. As a military chaplain during World War II, Bishop O’Hara made numerous trips to military bases throughout the United States serving the spiritual needs of troops with the same care he showed to the men of Notre Dame while Prefect of Religion.
With the end of World War II, Bishop O’Hara was appointed Bishop of Buffalo, NY in 1945; he was appointed Archbishop of Philadelphia in 1951 and elevated to Cardinal Archbishop of Philadelphia in 1958. While serving each diocese, Cardinal O’Hara left a legacy of Catholic education, establishing in each a system of Catholic elementary and high schools; he was outspoken about the need for Catholic schools to serve America’s young Catholics and to spur the development of Catholic life in America.
“One of the greatest tragedies which could befall a people would be to have her sons offer their lives for a cause which they believed to be right, and at the same time to neglect their spiritual welfare in the army of Christ.”
-- John Cardinal O’Hara
“Following [Our Lady] you will not go astray.”
-- John Cardinal O’Hara
About John Cardinal O’Hara in Notre Dame: One Hundred Years by Arthur J. Hope, C.S.C.
Timeline of the Career of John Cardinal O’Hara
McAvoy, C.S.C., Thomas T. Fr. O’Hara of Notre Dame. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967.
Hope, C.S.C., Arthur J. Notre Dame: One Hundred Years. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1943.