BY BUDDY NEVINS
There was a time not so long ago when the route to winning a seat on the Davie Town Council was through St. David’s Catholic Church.
Or the route to winning votes in Davie for any race.
From the 1970s to late 1990s, Rev. Gabriel O’Reilly wielded as much political power as any condominium boss or political club leader.
Maybe more. Because Father Gabe could always claim he was acting for a Higher Power.
“The Rev. Gabriel O’Reilly of St. David Catholic Church in Davie is a key to South Broward politics,” wrote Michael Young in 1992 in the Sun-Sentinel.
O’Reilly died Friday after a struggle with pancreatic cancer. He was 69.
Meeting O’Reilly, it was not hard to see why his parishioners loved him. And listened to him at election time.
Born and raised in Ireland as the sixth of eight children, he was a Hollywood central casting’s idea of an Irish priest.
A soft brogue and twinkling eyes belied a steely dedication.
It was that dedication that built St. David’s out of Davie’s sandy soil and orange groves in 1974. At the time, there were 19,000 in the town.
By 2007 when the church celebrated the 40th anniversary of his ordination, St. David had roughly 17,000 parishioners.
They started with 200 praying in a restaurant on State Road 84 owned by Eddie Egan. Another tough Irishman, Egan was the retired New York cop whose exploits were made into the film The French Connection.
In 1979, they build the church on University Drive.
His influence in Davie politics grew as his church grew. By the early 1990s, four of the five Davie council members attended St. David’s. Another parishioner was the wife of Scott Cowan, the county commission’s strongman.
O’Reilly was ever-present at political fund raisers and appeared in campaign literature. For Catholic and non-Catholic candidates, a visit to St. David’s was as important in Davie as a visit to Century Village in Deerfield Beach.
“If you don’t win St. David’s, you’ve got a problem,” Mayor Monroe Kiar, a church member and father of County Commissioner Marty Kiar, told the Miami Herald in 1989.
The preist was so involved in politics that in 1991, O’Reilly was questioned by prosecutors in an investigation of city hall violations of the Sunshine Law. Lobbyist Don McClosky was alleged to have rounded up votes quietly and behind the scenes to fire the town manager and O’Reilly was asked what he knew.
O’Reilly explained his involvement in politics with the Miami Herald in 1989: “I believe in becoming active. There are too many places where people lie down and do nothing.”
Amen, Father Gabe.
Funeral services for Father O’Reilly will begin Friday, June 14, at 4 p.m. at St. David, with a vigil lasting all night and vigil prayers at 8 p.m. Archbishop Thomas Wenski will celebrate the funeral Mass Saturday, June 15, at 10 a.m