Father Gabriel O’Reilly, the Irish founding priest of Davie’s St. David Parish, died Friday of pancreatic cancer.
He was 69, and had just celebrated his 46th anniversary as a Catholic priest on Tuesday, according to the Archdiocese of Miami.
Born March 7, 1944 in Clara, County Offaly, Ireland, O’Reilly was the seventh of eight children, a giant of a man who stood 6-foot-5.
He got involved in Davie civic affairs, and became politically influential.
O’Reilly came to South Florida in 1967 and became St. David Catholic Church’s spiritual leader on the day the parish was inaugurated in 1974. Five years later, the parish broke ground on a 15-acre site at 3900 S. University Dr.
O’Reilly previously served at St. Monica in Opa-locka, at the Marian Center for the developmentally disabled, the Apostolate to the Deaf and Blind, Hollywood’s Little Flower Parish, and the Sunland Training Center for the disabled in Miami.
Before St. David had a church, O’Reilly “set up the parish in a pub,’’ brother Hubert said. “On Sunday morning they used to open the pub for Mass,” his brother, Hubert O’Reilly, told a spokesman for the Archdiocese.
Later, he held services in a warehouse.
What the spokesman called “a veritable procession of past and present parishioners’’ joined O’Reilly’s brothers, Hubert and Terry, at the priest’s bedside in his final days. The brothers flew in from Ireland.
“We decided any parishioner that came we would let them into the room briefly,’’ Hubert told the spokesman. “The amount of love — it was unbelievable. He was deeply loved and the stories we heard about what he did for people.
“Outwardly he was a big brash man but inwardly he was generous, kind, giving. He looked after them spiritually, mentally and financially.”
During a newspaper interview for his 25th anniversary at the parish, O’Reilly said: “It’s an incredible vocation. When you wake up in the morning, you can be anything you want to be — a spiritual leader, a teacher, a family counselor, a builder, landscape architect, opener and locker of doors, all of which I’ve been at one time or another. This is exactly where I wanted to be in this stage in my life. I thank God I’m fortunate enough to be able to say that.”
O’Reilly had special feelings for the poor, and established a St. David outreach center to the needy, now called the Helping Other People Every Day (HOPE) Outreach Center.
In 1989, he served on the Davie Charter Review Board, and told the newspaper: “I believe in becoming active. There are too many places where people lie down and do nothing.”
He also championed the parish school, where a bronze bust of O’Reilly stands in a hallway.
The O’Reilly clan was planning a reunion in Ireland later this month, Hubert said.
“He was the rock of the family...Not a day went by when he didn’t make contact. To him, family was everything. He even preached family here in the church.”
In 2004, O’Reilly told The Miami Herald that in 1974, he was the first Catholic priest in Davie.
“It was a different kind of time. The population then was 19,000...St. David’s had 200 members and we met in a warehouse. Now we have 17,000 parishioners.”
He explained how the parish “built a community within a community and for a lot of people who moved here, the parish has become their hometown. Their friends are church-related, not neighborhood-related.”
Two years earlier, he told the newspaper how relieved he was that extensive renovations were over.
“People had to step over concrete blocks and nails,” and stand during services.
“It’s absolutely wonderful. After 20 years, now it’s truly permanent,” O’Reilly said.
Funeral services begin at 4 p.m. Friday at St. David, with an all-night vigil with prayers at 8 p.m. Archbishop Thomas Wenski will celebrate the funeral Mass at 10 a.m. on June 15.
Burial follows at Our Lady Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Fort Lauderdale.
In addition to Hubert and Terry, brother Patrick and sister Lillian, all of the United Kingdom, survive.