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Denise O'Donnell sets on the path to rebirth

  • AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Carole Walbert and Eddie Lukasevich release butterflies at the Denise O'Donnell memorial service on a rainy Saturday morning at the Immaculate Conception Cemetery in Jim Thorpe. "She didn't dream her life. She…
    AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Carole Walbert and Eddie Lukasevich release butterflies at the Denise O'Donnell memorial service on a rainy Saturday morning at the Immaculate Conception Cemetery in Jim Thorpe. "She didn't dream her life. She lived her dreams," Lukasevich said.
Published July 17. 2010 09:00AM

More than 80 friends bade farewell to Denise O'Donnell on a rainy Saturday, July 10 morning at the Immaculate Conception Cemetery in Jim Thorpe. The Buddhist ceremony overseen by a saffron and maroon-robed monk prayed to set her spirit on the path to rebirth on a higher plane of existence.

Carole Walbert, executor of the Denise O'Donnell estate, read "An Irish Funeral Prayer" that began, "Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room."

"I remember Denise because she lived her life, the way people would like to live their life," said Eddie Lukasevich, who released butterflies at the service, and was so close a friend with O'Donnell that she thought of her as a daughter. "She didn't dream her life. She lived her dreams."

O'Donnell became part of Mauch Chunk Historic District in Jim Thorpe when she opened her "vegetarian fare with Mediterranean flair" Café Origins restaurant at 107 Broadway in 2004. With great vision and expense, she converted an abandoned former Lehigh Coal & Navigation elevator-serviced parking garage into a destination restaurant-offering fine dining, fresh local ingredients, and international recipes, all served in a peaceful and tranquil environment reminiscent of a Thai restaurant in New York City.

Café Origins name was a way of O'Donnell saying that she was returning to her origins. She summed up personal history on her Café Origins web site.

Her father, James "Cackles" O'Donnell was born and raised here. He moved to Brooklyn after marrying Anna Maria Marsalla "Marcy" Colucci. Denise was raised in Brooklyn and influenced by both her mother's and Nana's cooking.

"Jim Thorpe was a place to visit and even stay during her college years. But it is the energy of the town, the people, the strong sense of community and the inspiration of the restaurant that makes her call Jim Thorpe home today."

The web site notes, "Owner/Chef Denise O'Donnell has been a vegetarian for many years and believes what you give out you get back, so she always tries to find the goodness in everyone even when it is hard to do so."

"She was a part of that neighborhood," Walbert said. "Everybody in the neighborhood feels a piece of it has been ripped out. She was part of the fabric of our community. It didn't take her long to weave into it."

When she became ill, Walbert said of her,"She was very accepting. I never saw her cry. Maybe it was her nurse's training. When they came with the diagnosis what the implications were, her Buddhist training came into play. She wanted to fight it so she would have more time on Earth. She was accepting. She wasn't upset or angry."

Denise O'Donnell was born on October 23, 1956 in Brooklyn, N.Y. She attended Bridgewater Raritan High School West, class of 1974, and received her nursing degree from Somerset Community College. She practiced as a Registered Nurse in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

She was working for Blue Mountain Health Systems as a visiting nurse, and most recently as a Hospice nurse. After moving to Jim Thorpe and opening Café Origins, she became active in the Jim Thorpe Chamber of Commerce and the World War II Memorial Committee.

O'Donnell's greatest joy was becoming an advanced mahout, an elephant caregiver. She was certified at the Maesa Elephant Camp in Thailand. Her adventure began in 2009 in Bangkok, Thailand with a visit with Fai Tuchinda, a friend she met when Tuchinda was an exchange student staying with Carole and Ben Walbert in Jim Thorpe.

O'Donnell flew north to Chang Mai where she volunteered at Friends for Asia to spend two and a half weeks, teaching English to three classes of novice monks.

"I got more out of it than they did," O'Donnell said. She visited the Love Animal Sanctuary where she cared for "17 dogs, 12 cats, several water buffalo, cows, exotic birds, ducks, a rooster named Saddam, a goat named Joe, and three monkeys," she said. "One goose was a pet that was used to being held. I would rub its back and it would lie on me for an hour."

Then, O'Donnell found the essence of her adventure, the Chang Mai Elephant Camp. "I slept in a tree house near the river," she said. "I could hear water hitting the rocks and elephants trumpeting all night."

"In the beginning of April, Denise started to have breathing problems," Walbert explained. "They became severe quickly. She went to Gnatten Huetten Memorial Hospital and was initially diagnosed with pneumonia. Within days, it was revised and she was referred to an oncologist at Lehigh Valley Hospital. It was too far advanced."

On June 7, 2010, at the age of 53, Denise O'Donnell passed away from metastatic lung cancer. Her remains were cremated and buried at Immaculate Conception Cemetery in Jim Thorpe along with the remains of her cats: Cartman and Richard. Denise is survived by her brother, James O'Donnell, in Thailand and a cousin, Marion Kuhns, in New Jersey.

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