The end of an era: Neil O'Donnell and Sons Mortuary has been sold
Friday, Jul. 03, 2020
Courtesy photo/Katie O'Donnell Nilson
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The O'Donnell family which has served the Catholic community in Utah since 1889 has sold its mortuary.
SALT LAKE CITY — An institution in Utah’s Catholic community recently changed hands. Mike O’Donnell, a member of the fourth generation to operate Neil O’Donnell and Sons Mortuary, has retired and sold the funeral home to new owners.
O’Donnell, who lived over the mortuary since 1980, has moved to Murray. He is sad that his family’s ownership of the mortuary is ending, although they are proud of the legacy they leave behind, he said.
Mike O’Donnell’s great-grandfather Edward G. O’Donnell first got into the funeral home business in 1889 when he purchased the Utah Undertaking Company. He subsequently changed its name to O’Donnell Mortuary Chapel. His two sons, Neil and Jack, joined him in the family business and were partners for a time before Neil left to start his own mortuary. (The first mortuary eventually closed).
Neil O’Donnell’s wife, Stella Devine O’Donnell, became the first woman to be licensed as a funeral director and embalmer in the State of Utah. Their son, Neil Jr., followed them into the business. Later, Neil’s sons Mike and Casey joined him at the mortuary.
Casey O’Donnell left the business in 1995.
In 2005, Mike’s daughter Katie O’Donnell Nilson, joined him straight out of high school. She worked at the mortuary in various positions for 16 years. Last year she often brought her newborn daughter Isla to work with her, so “I like to think of her as the sixth generation [of the family involved in the business] because I was able to bring her to work with me for the first nine months,” she said.
Both Mike O’Donnell and his daughter have similar memories of life at the mortuary. Having lived there as a small child before his parents built a new home nearby, and worked there since 1973, Mike O’Donnell has many memories of the place. One of those was of his older brother Casey escaping unclothed from his mother at bath time and being found on the lap of the organist Ethel Hogan Hansen Heinz Merrill, who was calmly playing for a vigil/rosary service.
O’Donnell originally didn’t plan to join the family business. However, after working for a construction equipment company and taking night classes at the University of Utah, he was happy to trade the diesel fuel, gasoline and oil smell for a suit and tie and to join his father at the mortuary. He went on to attend the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science and worked in the business for close to 50 years.
Nilson remembers visiting her father and staying at the mortuary after her parents divorced.
“My sisters always joke with me because I hated sleeping there,” she said. “So they were like, ‘How are you the one who ended up working there for so long?’ because I was just terrified. I was just a young kid and I knew what was downstairs and it just unsettled me a little bit. But as I got older, I got over that.”
Mike O’Donnell estimates his family provided “somewhere in the thousands” of funerals for the Catholic community and greater community of Salt Lake City. “We’ve had huge support from the Catholic community, which we are grateful for, and the community at large,” he said.
During the 1991-93 renovation of the Cathedral of the Madeleine, the mortuary housed the body of the first Bishop of Salt Lake City, the Right Rev. Lawrence Scanlan, until a new crypt could be built.
Bishop Scanlan died in 1915; he was interred at the cathedral.
With the renovation, the space in the cathedral was very tight for the new crypt, O’Donnell remembers.
“The measurement had to be spot-on accurate,” he said. The family had a nervous minute or two until the new casket finally slid into place, he said. “That was a very monumental event in our careers because we entombed him the first time as well.”
A more infamous job was that of Joe Hill, a Swedish-American labor activist who was executed by firing squad on Nov. 19, 1915 at the Sugar House Prison for the murder of a local grocer and his son. The mortuary retrieved the body and prepared it for shipment to Chicago.
For the most part, however, the O’Donnell family offered their services to ordinary families, offering comfort and helping to bury their loved ones with dignity.
When it came time to retire, O’Donnell said he toyed with the idea of just selling the property, “but I really wanted the name to carry on” and the new owners “are going to do a fantastic job with that.”
O’Donnell and Nilson worked on the sale for more than three years.
“This was something we really thought long and hard about, what we wanted to do with the mortuary,” Nilson said.
“We just feel confident in these guys, that they are going to be able to pick up where we’ve left off,” she said of the new owners, Shawn Wiscombe and Matthew Medford. “Over the years, the Catholic community, they’ve placed their faith in us to serve them for as long as we have because we are fellow Catholics. So I think that it is incredibly important for them to know that our Catholic community is still going to be given the same service over the years.”
Wiscombe and Medford, who acquired the mortuary in April, have changed the name only slightly, to the Neil O’Donnell Funeral Home, and are intent on preserving the family’s legacy, Wiscombe said. They are currently renovating the mortuary. One room will be dedicated as a tribute to the O’Donnell family. A second room, formerly known as the Gold Room, will be named the Stella Devine Room to honor Neil’s wife.
The renovations are expected to be complete in September and the new owners are planning open houses to let the community see the changes.
“I want the Catholic community to know that I have spent my life dedicated to funeral service and serving families, regardless of what their faith is or lack thereof; I genuinely care about what I do and the families I serve,” said Wiscombe, who has more than 32 years experience in the industry.
Funeral Director Steve Schroeder, who has been with the mortuary for more than 31 years, is remaining with the company, along with Dick Mirabelli and Mike Giardi.
Many longtime members of Utah’s Catholic community have fond memories of the service provided by the O’Donnells.
“I’m very sad,” Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald, vicar general emeritus, said of the O’Donnells selling the mortuary. “I think it’s a loss of a very important institution that has significance for the Catholic community. We’re grateful for the service the O’Donnells have provided the Catholic community and others in the community as well, especially with their understanding of Catholic rituals, attitudes and celebrations.”
“It was the place where everyone who was Catholic had their funerals and it was always very nice,” said Virginia Albo, a longtime member of the Catholic community who attended many funerals at Neil O’Donnell and Sons Mortuary with her husband, Dominic.
Another stalwart family in the Catholic community, the McCarthys, have had a long history with the O’Donnells. Several generations have had their funeral services at the mortuary and there have been deep, abiding friendships among the two families, according to Phil McCarthy.
“One always felt that he was in very good hands when you were dealing with Neil O’Donnell Mortuary – they knew the family, they knew the history, they knew the Catholic traditions, they knew the services,” he said. “We are very grateful for all the years of service that they gave to our family and the community. We wish them all very well; we wish them the best of luck and we will have a tip of the cap and a little Irish toast to them.”
Monsignor Joseph Mayo, a retired priest of the diocese, remembers growing up with Mike O’Donnell and his three siblings, and serving as an altar boy for funerals.
“We all became very good friends along the way,” he said. “After I was ordained a priest I did many funerals with them and vigils at the mortuary itself. We have been wonderful, lifelong friends and shared many meals together and told stories about the old days. As all things happen, things find their eventual end and a transition takes place – it’s the end of an era.”