Author and historian, John Dandola, who has unraveled a great many of the mysteries and misconceptions involved in West Orange’s past says it’s complicated and slightly misunderstood.
The clergyman in question, Reverend Joseph Pierre Norman Connor, was assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes parish in 1919 and he served there until 1941. Father Connor wasn’t just a priest; he was a highly successful composer of popular songs from the 1920's through the 1940's. He most frequently used his two middle names, Pierre Norman, as a pseudonym. His two most recorded songs, “When I Take My Sugar to Tea” and “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me”, have had hit renditions by Nat King Cole, Doris Day, and Frank Sinatra. Father Connor also wrote the theme music to the 1948 movie, The Miracle of the Bells, which featured Sinatra as a priest.
During his time at Our Lady of Lourdes, Father Connor used his talents and connections to organize concerts and produce local musicals for the benefit of the fledgling parish and its school. As if that were not enough, he also donated many of his music royalties to those same two causes.
Whenever someone discovers a snippet from a 1920's or 1930's newspaper about some famous entertainer or sports figure who visited West Orange, it winds up being reported in the local press invariably using some version of the line, “But we don’t know why.” Father Connor is the reason why. Those famous people were his personal friends and they were usually visiting in some performance capacity which raised money for Our Lady of Lourdes.
"He is the link to all the famous personalities who visited West Orange during his tenure yet his part in the town's history has been largely forgotten," explains John Dandola whose West Orange: A Concise and Accurate History features an entire chapter on Father Connor. "Unfortunately, such things happen with local historical figures everywhere—if they're not forgotten, they're overly fictionalized. Father Connor’s case is a little of both. He’s been completely forgotten by the town but on the parish’s part, it's been sort of like a game of good-intentioned ‘telephone’
So where does Father Connor's biography go wrong?
"When I was a kid growing up in Our Lady of Lourdes parish, I'd keep hearing about him," Dandola says. "He had been made the pastor of another church long before I was born but my mother and aunt and grandparents all knew him while he was at Lourdes and they only had wonderful things to say about him. Even as a kid, I was very much immersed in all things show business and whenever the parish put something in print about Father Connor, it always claimed that he was the model for Bing Crosby's priest character in Going My Way. What never made sense to me was that the priest in Going My Way doesn't have the same name nor is there anything within the film's storyline which is even vaguely biographical in terms of Father Connor. As a result, the claim has always been met with natural and justified skepticism from anyone outside the parish."
It would seem a tall enough tale. A priest who composed successful popular songs is hard enough to believe but that he was also the model for one of the most famous characters in movie history seems preposterous. Dandola has given the matter careful study and surprisingly, the claim really isn't far-fetched or erroneous. His conclusion is that the problem stems from a lack of understanding on the part of those reporting it.
"No one could ever supply details to back up the claim about Going My Way because no one understood how things happen behind-the-scenes in the entertainment world,” Dandola points out. “Going My Way was nominated for ten Academy Awards and it won seven—including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor. That’s a very high bar to set so you just can't say someone is the basis for a famous character in that film and expect it to be believed. You have to explain how and why that may be true. It's the explanation of how and why that's never ever been presented properly.”
A show business professional in his own right, Dandola used his background in the film industry and his thorough knowledge of Hollywood history to decipher things and, as it turns out, Father Connor did inspire Bing Crosby's Father O'Malley character—but ‘inspire' must be used in the broadest sense.
That detailed explanation appears in Dandola’s West Orange: A Concise and Accurate History which debuted in 2013 and is available only through his web site. The chapter about Father Connor was to lead to a biography about the priest as requested by one of the author’s close friends who is a mover-and-shaker within the parish. Unfortunately, there were too many cooks involved wanting to help make the soup. “I don’t do committees,”
The parish has never requested nor has it been given permission to reprint that chapter.
“I have to admit that I regret not having the chance to do a much more in-depth biography about him,” says Dandola. “Whether that can still happen remains to be seen. I would be the one who could bring the most to such a project because there are aspects of creativity which can only be understood and put into words by someone who has had similar creative experiences. Father Connor also had ties within the movie industry which are fascinating to explore and I’m quite possibly the last person who is privy to them.”
John Dandola is a professional writer who still lives in West Orange. He is an author of both non-fiction and fiction—six of his ten mystery novels are set in West Orange during the 1940's and explore the town’s ties to the Thomas Edison family and to Golden-Age Hollywood. He is also a produced screenwriter and a produced playwright. Four of his plays are based on the famous Father Brown mysteries. Visit his web site at http://www.JohnDandola.com.