John's father and uncles had "helped to grade the L&N Railroad from Louisville to Lexington and had laid the first steel rails on this line" according to his father Patrick's obituary. So it was natural for John to follow his father's career path into railroading. But instead of the hands-on labor building the railroad, John earned two higher degrees from Eminence College in Kentucky and became a Civil Engineer with the Louisville & Nashville Railroad.
This career choice took him to Alabama, leaving his father and sisters in Kentucky, by the end of the 1890's. And it was in the town of Calera in Shelby County, just south of Birmingham, that he met his future wife Mary Huber (1873-1913). Mayme, as she was called, was also from Kentucky. She was working as a school teacher when they met, living in the same boarding house as John in Calera. They were married on Thursday morning, February 11, 1904, at St. Paul's Catholic Church (now Cathedral) in Birmingham.
|O'Donnell Home in Norwood|
In order to continue to work and keep his children, since, of course, there were no daycare centers and his family was all in Kentucky, John placed the three boys in the local orphanage run by Catholic nuns. The boys stayed here at the Atheneaum Orphanage during the week and John would bring them home on the weekends. They were enrolled here from April 2, 1913 (two days after their mother's death) until September 20, 1920. At this time they were 15, 13 and 12 years old, and old enough to stay home while their father was at work.
|"Pop" and grandson J.H. O'Donnell, Jr.|
John's youngest child Barbara was sent out west after her mother's death to live with her mother's sister, Philomena Huber (1876-1937). Minnie, as she was called, was a nurse and had moved to Albuquerque to help care for her sister. The siblings stayed close by writing letters, and eventually Barbara, too, moved back in with her father and brothers in Birmingham.
On December 3, 1937, John's brother-in-law Benjamin Ruffner Smith died in Louisville, Kentucky. Benjamin (1857-1937) had been married to John's older sister Alice O'Donnell (1860-1934). John travelled to Louisville for the funeral. It was here, on December 6, that John died. One story says that he was eating breakfast at the family's table when he had a sudden heart attack and died. His body was brought back by train and was buried on December 9th at the old Our Lady of Sorrows' Cemetery next to his wife. He was survived by his four children, their spouses, and eight grandchildren.
J. M. O'DONNELL DIES
Mr. O'Donnell had gone to Louisville to attend the funeral of his brother-in-law B.R. Smith, who died Saturday.
Until his retirement a short time ago, Mr. O'Donnell was connected to the Louisville & Nashville Railroad engineering office.
Surviving are three sons, Hubert (sic) and Edward K. O'Donnell, Birmingham; Charles P. O'Donnell, Atlanta, and a daughter, Mrs. H. A. Nelson, Birmingham." (Birmingham News, December 7, 1937; page 10)
|Prayer Card from Burial Mass|
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|Headstone at Old Our Lady of Sorrows Cemetery|
behind Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church
708 1st Street South