Brother Francis Joseph O’Donnell Jr., a retired educator and attorney who fought for social causes, dies

Brother Francis Joseph O’Donnell Jr. ministered to prisoners serving life sentences at Maryland’s Jessup Correctional Institution.

Brother Francis Joseph O’Donnell Jr., a former Cardinal Gibbons High School principal and attorney advocate for the poor, died July 22 at Stella Maris Hospice in Timonium of a traumatic spinal injury from an accidental fall. He was 79 and had lived in Roland Park and in Rosedale.

A statement from his religious community, the Marianist Province, said, “Brother Frank was a tireless advocate for the marginalized, devoting his life to procuring opportunities for and defending the rights of those in need.”


Born in Philadelphia, he was the son of Francis J. O’Donnell Sr. and Eleanor E. Doney. He was a graduate of St. John the Baptist High School and began his religious studies at Marianist Preparatory School in Beacon, New York, in 1956.

After additional seminary study, he professed his first vows in 1960. He earned an English degree at the University of Dayton and a master’s degree at the Catholic University of America in Washington.


“He had a great organizational mind. Frank was also the most mild-mannered man I ever met. He was unassuming but was so passionate about working for racial justice, the poor and marginalized and the LGBT community,” said Francis De Bernardo, director of New Ways Ministry. “He was a tireless worker.”

Brother O’Donnell moved to Baltimore in the mid-1960s and taught French and theology at the newly opened Cardinal Gibbons High School at Caton and Wilkens avenues in Southwest Baltimore.

He was named principal in 1969 and held the post until 1975. He also earned his master’s in educational administration from what was then Loyola College in Baltimore in 1971.

“Frank had a dry sense of humor and a deep humility. He could communicate his skepticism or surprise through a facial gesture, like a raised eyebrow,” said the Rev. Terry Troia, who runs the Project Hospitality Interfaith Homeless Effort on Staten Island. “He was deeply committed to the Gospel of Jesus. He was a great comfort to people in the days of illness and death during the AIDS crisis years. He had an empathetic connection to people.”

She also said he was nonjudgmental and welcoming to all.

He helped establish the Marianist Sharing Fund and served as its chairman for five years. The fund works to promote social change and build communities.

“Frank was committed to promoting a church that would grow in its ability to be more centered on the issues of justice and peace,” Brother Jesse O’Neill said. “He always possessed a special love and concern for the poor and marginalized. He believed at his core that the gift of a Marianist education would change lives and ultimately contribute to healing our world.”

His colleagues said that Brother O’Donnell realized the underprivileged were also underrepresented legally. He then enrolled at the University of Maryland Law School Baltimore and earned a degree in 1991.


As an attorney, he worked for the poor, providing legal services, improving the quality of life in neighborhoods and giving legislative aid in Baltimore.

Brother O’Donnell served as the director of the tenant advocacy project at the Public Justice Center in Baltimore from 1991 to 1993. He then served as the provincial assistant for Marianist Province of New York and was also deputy director for the Community Law Center in Baltimore.

He became the legislative aide to Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr. in the Maryland General Assembly in 1999, then served a year as Mr. Montague’s special assistant to the secretary in the Department of Juvenile Services until 2003.

Mr. Montague said, “We became colleagues and almost soulmates on the issue of juvenile justice. It was good to have his support when we were taking on controversial issues. I thought of him as a mental linebacker for our work. He was a good sounding board for me.”

Brother O’Donnell was also special projects manager and legislative director for the Governor’s Office of Children, Youth and Families.

In 2006, he became the staff attorney for the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearings.


“Brother Frank was a hopeful voice. He faithfully encouraged many of those who worked for justice in the church and the world,” said Barbara Bell, who worked with him.

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Brother Mike O’Grady, a fellow Marianist, said: “Frank was a strong supporter of religious women and their great contribution to the church in America. He was also a man with extensive correspondence. If you were on his list, you received a handwritten birthday card precisely on the date of your birthday. He thrilled people with that kind of attention.”

Friends said he fought capital punishment.

He also ministered to prisoners serving life sentences at Maryland’s Jessup Correctional Institution. He received numerous awards for his work in education, legal services, vocation ministry and anti-abortion causes.

Brother O’Donnell was a former board chair of the Mother Seton Academy, a Greenmount Avenue middle school.

“He was a champion of the mission of the school,” said Sister Peggy Juskelis, the school’s president. “His wisdom and his humor were always evident. Over the years, his ministry expanded far beyond school walls in service to God’s people.”


A funeral was held Aug. 4 at the Church of the Annunciation in Rosedale.

He left no immediate survivors.