Father O'Dea had been hospitalized since the evening of New Year's Day, when he was stricken with a heart attack. He celebrated Mass earlier in the day and appeared in good health at that time.
The priest, who would have celebrated the 39th anniversary of his ordination on Jan. 30, served all his priesthood in two New Bedford parishes.
The Most Rev. Sean Patrick O'Malley, bishop of the Fall River Diocese, will be the principal celebrant for Father O'Dea's funeral Mass at St. Lawrence Church. The sermon will be preached by the Rev. John J. Steakem, pastor of St. Thomas More Church, Somerset, a member of Father O'Dea's ordination class.
Father O'Dea will lie in state at St. Lawrence Church from 2 to 9 p.m. Friday, with a vigil service at 7.
Father O'Dea was ordained at St. Mary's Cathedral in Fall River on Jan. 30, 1960.
He was associate pastor at St. James Church from his ordination until March 1971, when he was transferred to St. Lawrence Church.
Father O'Dea was chaplain of the New Bedford Fire Department since June 1963.
Well known through his service in the two County Street parishes, Father O'Dea was described by a colleague as a self-effacing person whose main concern was to do things for others.
Born in Taunton on Oct. 30, 1934, the son of the late Maurice and Marguerite (Dinneen) O'Dea, he was raised in that city, where he attended Immaculate Conception Church and graduated from Monsignor Coyle High School.
Father O'Dea attended Our Lady of Providence Seminary in Warwick, R.I., where he completed his philosophy studies, and Stonehill College in North Easton and St. John's Seminary in Brighton.
In 1971, Father O'Dea was named diocesan director of Project Equality, a statewide program dedicated to maintaining and improving fair housing practices for minorities.
He was director the Regina Pacis Hispanic Center in the South End in 1972.
He assisted at St. Francis of Assisi Church from 1991-94.
Father O'Dea served for several weeks in the late summer and early fall of 1996 as temporary administrator of Sacred Heart Church.
Proud of his Irish heritage, Father O'Dea was chaplain of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick.
As Fire Department chaplain, he was called upon in January 1982 to help a distraught young man who sat atop the girders of the New Bedford-Fairhaven Bridge, threatening to jump. Father O'Dea and veteran firefighter Leo J. Boswell coaxed the man down to safety.
"He was very much involved in people's lives, people with problems or difficulties. He would devote a great deal of time to them," said the Rev. John Paul Driscoll, pastor of St. Lawrence Martyr Church, who noted that Father O'Dea's responsibilities included maintaining and distributing items from the parish's food pantry to the poor.
"He was very much concerned," said Father Driscoll, recalling that even when as many as 12 to 15 needy individuals showed up at one time, "he would take time to talk to each of them. ... He would take an interest in their problems."
Father O'Dea was director of the parish's religious education program and moderator of the lectors and eucharistic ministers.
Father O'Dea "will certainly be fondly remembered and missed," said Bishop O'Malley, who praised him as a priest and a gentleman. "His fellow priests will miss him. He was always in contact with priests and maintained many close friends."
The bishop, who was with Father O'Dea the day before he died, recalled that he "was a man close to the neighborhood" and a source of stability.
"He touched a lot of people in his own unique way," said the Rev. John F. Moore, pastor of St. Elizabeth Seton Church in North Falmouth, who described Father O'Dea as a classmate from seminary days and a dear friend.
Father Moore recalled that working as a Fire Department chaplain was a role Father O'Dea greatly enjoyed.
Survivors include several cousins, including Mary E. O'Dea of Taunton.
Arrangements are by the Saunders-Dwyer Home for Funerals, 495 Park St. Burial will be at St. Joseph's Cemetery in Taunton.
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