Father Jim O’Toole, Air Force chaplain and diocesan priest, dies at 83

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

June 5, 2020

Fr. James O'Toole
Fr. James O'Toole

FORT WORTH — During his 56 years as a priest, Father Jim O’Toole spent 21 years as an Air Force chaplain and another three decades serving North Texas parishioners. But the Philadelphia native considered a brief stay in India, where he volunteered in Mother Teresa’s home for the dying, as the high point of his ministry

Working alongside the Missionaries of Charity Brothers and Sisters, the priest helped carry the sick from the streets of Kolkata to one of the home’s spotlessly clean beds. Once settled, Fr. O’Toole bathed, fed, and cared for each patient, “to let them experience the love of God before they died.”

Forced to return to the U.S. for medical treatment after contracting typhoid, hepatitis, and tuberculosis, the priest never forgot his three months caring for the sick, destitute, and dying in one of the world’s poorest countries.

“I haven’t found anything that was more satisfying,” he told the North Texas Catholic in 2016.

Fr. O’Toole died June 4 after a brief illness. He was 83. Bishop Michael Olson will preside at the Funeral Mass set for Thursday, June 11 at 11 a.m. in St. Vincent de Paul Church, 5819 W. Pleasant Ridge Road, Arlington. The graveside committal will follow immediately after the Mass and will take place at Mount Olivet Cemetery, 2301 N. Sylvania Ave., Fort Worth. Father Philip Brembah will lead a prayer vigil at 7 p.m., Wednesday, June 10 at St. Vincent de Paul Church.

Son of the late Edith and James J. O’Toole, the deceased was educated in Catholic schools and, as an 18-year-old, began his studies for the priesthood at Assumption Seminary in San Antonio. One of his classmates was Blessed Stanley Rother. In 2017, he attended the martyred priest’s beatification in Oklahoma City.

After completing his formation at St. John’s Home Missions Seminary in Little Rock, Arkansas, the seminarian was ordained on May 16, 1964 by Cardinal John J. Krol in Philadelphia’s Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul. The following day, he celebrated his first solemn Mass in Holy Family Church — the O’Toole family’s home parish in Philadelphia.

Assigned to what was then the Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth, Fr. O’Toole arrived in Texas to become assistant pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Wichita Falls. Ministering to servicemen at the nearby Sheppard Air Force Base led to a life-changing decision for the young priest. After serving briefly at several parishes, including St. Andrew in Fort Worth, Fr. O’Toole requested permission from Bishop Thomas K. Gorman to enlist in the Air Force as a military chaplain.

“I saw it as a form of missionary work,” he said in a 1990 NTC interview. “It really is. You’re on the move all the time.”

Years counseling military families through a wide range of problems from loneliness to marital stress sent the chaplain to Korea, Japan, Spain, and several bases in the U.S. before retiring from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 1989. Returning to the diocese, he resumed parish ministry and became pastor of Holy Cross Parish in The Colony and later St. Michael Parish in Bedford.

Jean Lyman, former director of the Children’s Liturgy of the Word and other programs at St. Michael, remembered the pastor as someone with “the Irish gift of gab who would get people excited, enthused, and active in the Church.”

When one of her sons wanted to earn the Boy Scout Ad Altare Dei (to the altar of God) emblem, he offered to work with him and fellow scouts.

“He met with them every week — sometimes bringing pizza,” recalled Lyman, now a Good Shepherd parishioner. “What endeared me to him was how he cared for all of his parishioners. He believed in engaging people right from the start. He made kids feel comfortable in the Church and wanted programs for them.”

Planting the seed of a religious vocation in young minds was another focus.

“Father always told my boys, ‘One of you guys should be a priest when you grow up,’” Lyman said, remembering the conversation. “When my younger son balked and said he wanted to play the trumpet, he said, ‘Okay, so you’ll be a trumpet-playing priest!’”

After retiring from parish duties in 2001, Fr. O’Toole became a spokesman for the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging — a Catholic lay organization now known as Unbound. Traveling to parishes across the country, the persuasive speaker encouraged his listeners to contribute monthly toward the support and education of an impoverished youngster living in Central or South America.

“More than 50,000 children were sponsored because of his efforts,” said Patti Lavender, a St. Michael parishioner and longtime friend. “There were always 10 to 12 children he was sponsoring himself. He would never ask people to do something he didn’t believe in.”

Fr. O’Toole visited Guatemala frequently and raised money for faith communities there as well.

“He had a heart and spirit for the poor,” Lavender continued.

Compassion toward the sick and infirmed — most likely rooted from his hospice work in India — was another defining trait of Fr. O’Toole, according to Deacon Harry Heinz.

“He was a ‘take charge’ person because of his experience in the military but very caring,” said the deacon who worked with him at St. Michael. “If a parishioner was sick, he didn’t care where you were, he went to see you.”

The pastor sometimes drove to downtown Dallas to make a hospital visit.

“He frequently commented about the power the Sacrament of the Sick offers,” Dcn. Heinz added.

Fr. O’Toole was devoted to the Diocese of Fort Worth and appreciated people who volunteered in church ministries.

“He was a happy priest who personified spirit and spunk,” Lavender said. “He served as a good role model to our seminarians.”

Fr. O’Toole is survived by several nieces and nephews.

Father James O'Toole

FORT WORTH — During his 56 years as a priest, Father Jim O’Toole spent 21 years as an Air Force chaplain and another three decades serving North Texas parishioners.

Published (until 6/5/2039)