O'Connor, John Joseph (1870–1952), priest and writer, was born 5 December 1870 in Kilmacomma, Co. Waterford, son of Michael O'Connor, merchant, and Bridget O'Connor (née Mulcahy); his birth was registered in neighbouring Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. Educated in Ireland by the Franciscans and the Christian Brothers, he studied for the catholic priesthood at St Edmund's, Douai, Belgium, and in Rome, where he was ordained in the church of St John Lateran (1895). He occupied a series of mission assignments in England, at Halifax, Leeds, Keighley, and Heckmondwike, before becoming parish priest of St Cuthbert's, Bradford, where he opened a new church in 1935. He contributed twelve original compositions and fifteen translations from the Latin and Italian to the popular Arundel hymnal (1902), edited by Charles T. Gatty and the duke of Norfolk; through Gatty he was introduced to a circle of highly placed literary enthusiasts, including Augustine Birrell (qv) and Lord Rosebery.
O'Connor is best known for his lengthy friendship with the writer G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936), which began when he was curate of St Anne's, Keighley, in 1904; he made an immediate and favourable impression on Chesterton as the two men rambled together over the Yorkshire moors following Chesterton's lecture in the village. He also became close to Chesterton's wife, Frances, with whom he was a regular correspondent and confidante. Chesterton once described him as combining unusually in his single personality the qualities of ‘priest, human being, man of science, man of the world, man of the other world, old friend, new friend, not to mention Irishman and picture dealer' (quoted in Barker, 154). A small man, neat in his habits and self-confident in manner, he was the model for Chesterton's most popular fictional character, Father Brown, of which fact he was proud. Though Chesterton altered features of O'Connor's appearance and demeanour to render his creation more superficially commonplace and inconspicuous, he supplied Father Brown with O'Connor's flat black hat, large cheap umbrella, and habit of carrying large brown parcels. While lacking Father Brown's unerring skills at detection, O'Connor shared his capacity to discourse learnedly on a range of subjects. He also inspired the essence of Chesterton's characterisation of Father Brown, as a catholic priest with an outward air of sanctity, otherworldliness, and innocence, who paradoxically, through his role as confessor, possessed a keen insight into the depths of human iniquity, and a greater knowledge of the mechanics of crime than that enjoyed by most criminals. The first of the Father Brown stories, ‘The blue cross’ (1910), was suggested to Chesterton by an anecdote related by O'Connor from his own experience. Although long scrupulous about not actively proselytising his friend, O'Connor was instrumental in Chesterton's decision, after years of vacillation, to convert to Roman Catholicism (1922), an event widely and triumphantly reported in the catholic press.
O'Connor contributed a commentary to a 1918 edition of ‘The mistress of vision’, by the catholic poet Francis Thompson (1859–1907). His translations from the French include The philosophy of art (1923) by Jacques Maritain, the masterful drama The satin slipper (1931) by Paul Claudel, and a selection of Claudel's essays, Ways and crossways (1933). He published Poems: original and derived (1932), a biography of Savonarola (1946), and the memoir Father Brown on Chesterton (1937), a discursive account of his friendship with the author. Created a monsignor in 1937, he became a privy chamberlain to Pope Pius XI in 1938. Remaining active in parochial work until May 1951, he died 6 February 1952 in a Leeds nursing home.