“Uncle Bishop” – A Legacy of Faith and Love

April 1, 2023

Above: Bishop William Condon with the children of his brother James Condon in 1945. The author’s mother, Mary Conley, is on the far right. (Courtesy: The Conley Family)

By Therese O’Rourk

My family has roots in the Diocese of Spokane that go back generations, starting when my great grandparents, following work on the Northern Pacific Railway, settled in Spokane. Among the children of this family of Irish immigrants, was one that my mother, relatives, and I have come to fondly call “Uncle Bishop.”

Bishop William J. Condon was one of six siblings who survived to adulthood. Among his siblings were two physicians – Drs. Edward P. and James R. Condon; two sisters of the Benedictine order at St. Gertrude’s in Cottonwood – Srs. Hedwig and Patricia; and a fellow priest also serving in the newly established Diocese of Spokane – Fr. John J. Condon. In fact, Fr. John was the first priest to be ordained for our diocese.

1920 Condon Siblings

The Condon siblings pictured in 1920. Back row from left to right: Dr. James, Dr. Edward, Fr. William, Fr. John. Front row seated left to right: Sr. Patricia, Nellie (wife of Edward), Sr. Hedwig. (Courtesy: The Conley Family)

I did not personally know Uncle Bishop, but his was a life of great faith and love that has left an impact on his family and the descendants of his siblings just as truly as he nourished the communities he served as a priest and bishop. He had a particular grace about him – a grace that prepared him for the burdens he would be asked to bear. Catholic author Joseph Breig described him beautifully in a 1959 article in The Catholic Times:

He has the Irish lilt in his voice, the Irish delicacy in his heart, and the Irish common sense and humility in his head. He is a man you instantly like and feel comfortable with…. That Irish lilt is not a matter of the vocal cords or the Irish tenor voice. It is a matter of the Irish soul which is extraordinarily sensitive to the feelings of other human beings. It is, as I see it, an Irish way of inflecting words – of almost singing them – so that they fall into one’s heart softly.

After graduating from Gonzaga with his bachelor’s degree in 1912 at age 17, William began his studies at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, CA. In 1917, he was ordained at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, eventually becoming rector of the Cathedral, secretary to Bishop Charles D. White, Chancellor of the Diocese, pastor of St. Augustine, and Vicar General. In 1937, he was elevated to Monsignor, and Gonzaga University conferred him an honorary Doctor of Law degree.

In 1939, he was appointed Bishop of Great Falls by His Holiness Pope Pius XII and received his episcopal consecration from Bishop Charles White. Through his 27 years as Bishop in Montana, he oversaw the diocese’s growth, the construction of several parishes and schools, and the expansion of the Catholic College of Great Falls (present-day University of Providence). In addition, he participated in the Second Vatican Council. He worked to implement the Council’s decrees in his diocese while heeding the warning of the Holy Father that the Council should not be used as a pretext for introducing every type of novelty in doctrine and practice.

Most Rev William James Condon

An undated portrait of the Most Rev. William James Condon. Ordained a priest of the Diocese of Spokane in 1917, he was the bishop of Great Falls, MT from 1939 to 1967. (Courtesy: The Conley Family)

Behind his works and accomplishments, Uncle Bishop was a devoted son, brother, and uncle – an invaluable confessor and shepherd to his family. He presided over many joyous occasions and sacraments and provided comfort and support through turmoil and heartbreak. After the loss of his mother suddenly in 1920, his father struggled with pain from the years working the railroads and grief as the family endured a series of early deaths. Dr. Edward suffered the loss of his first wife, Nellie; Fr. John passed suddenly while pastor of St. Mary Veradale/St. Joseph Trentwood; Dr. Edward and Dr. James passed too soon, leaving two widows with young children.

Uncle Bishop never ceased caring for his remaining family, particularly his nieces and nephews. He frequently traveled to Spokane from Montana to be with them. Tears would fill his eyes as he walked out the door returning to his diocese. My grandmother Bridget was said not to make a move without first consulting him. He carried with him the responsibility to fulfill a spiritual fatherhood as well as the physical care and protection of his brothers’ children that continued well into their adult lives as their own families grew. When he was diagnosed with cancer in 1964, he chose not to reveal his illness but only asked that the family gather together for a barbecue so he could embrace everyone in joy. With treatments, he continued to fulfill his duties for three additional years. His death came suddenly, as his siblings before, succumbing to a heart attack as he approached the 50th anniversary of his priesthood – on August 17, 1967. He was 72.

1964 Bishop with Dr. James and Bridget Condon grandchildren

Bishop Condon with the widow Bridget Condon and grandchildren of Dr. James Condon. This photo was taken in 1964 at the home of John and Mary Conley following word of his cancer diagnosis. (Courtesy: The Conley Family)

Today, when my mother, Mary Elizabeth Condon Conley, walks into the Cathedral, I know she sees her Uncle Bishop on the altar, always occupied with the work of Christ. Her spiritual connection to him began the day he presided over her baptism as rector of the Cathedral in 1929. Their connection evolved with his comfort of her as a young girl following the death of her father, Dr. James Condon. This relationship further deepened with his prayers, sacraments, conversations, and correspondence in her young adult life through marriage and children. My mother now experiences that connection through the priests and bishops that have followed him. I share in my mother’s gratitude for the beauty and influence of Sr. Hedwig, Sr. Patricia, Fr. John, and Uncle Bishop. The legacy of these religious sisters and clergy of our family, especially Uncle Bishop’s faithful solicitude to his relatives, inspires us to offer prayers asking that the gift of priestly and religious vocations continue to arise from and bless our family and the diocese where we have made our home.

Therese O’Rourk and family are parishioners at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, along with her mother, Mrs. John Conley (née Mary Condon), niece of Bishop Condon.