By Father Christopher M. O’Connor
On Aug. 30, Msgr. John (Jack) O’Brien died after a long battle with cancer.
Many people may not have known him, but when I was a newly ordained priest, I was sent to him for my first assignment. He was the pastor of St. Benedict Joseph Labre, Richmond Hill for a long time and I was with him for five of those years. He had a reputation for being tough, and it was well-deserved. He did not like nonsense of any kind. Even though he had an Irish last name, he was more German than anything, which he got from his mother. He still had a sense of humor, and I loved trying to get him to laugh.
He was the right kind of pastor for me as a newly ordained, and I learned a great deal from him. He was always open to me sharing ideas, would give his input and we would discuss possibilities. He was not afraid of correcting me, and I was not afraid to show him what I thought.
We developed a trust that made it easy for us to work together. We might not have always agreed, but we had each other’s back. I remember when I first came to see him, we went to his room to talk. He immediately got on his knees to ask for my blessing. That always stayed with me.
Msgr. O’Brien taught me how to work as a priest but also how to relax. He would meet every Friday night with a priest homily preparation group, and I saw the fraternity that he had. He always encouraged me to maintain that same kind of fraternity and allowed me to host priest Christmas parties for my friends. His loyalty to his priest friends was inspiring. He was a man of prayer. I frequently caught him praying the rosary in his room in the afternoon, or saying his breviary. We would at times run into each other in the rectory adoration chapel. We would share books, fiction and theological, and then share our thoughts about them.
When he was retiring, I invited him to come live with me at my last assignment, Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jamaica. My big selling point was that there is a YMCA down the block, and he loved to swim every morning. He was with me for a number of years before I came to our parish. He remained there and continued his swimming and serving the parish.
If he is to be remembered for one thing, it would be his love for the Hispanic community. He was one of the first priests sent away to study Spanish in the 1960s. He was responsible for sending other seminarians and priests away to study Spanish. He began one of the first Masses in Spanish in the diocese at what was Sacred Heart Chapel in Brooklyn. He gave a voice to many of them and fought for their rights throughout his priesthood.
He was one of the hardest-working priests I have ever met. His counsel and his concern for me throughout the years have had a lasting effect.
I ask if you could offer a Hail Mary for the repose of his soul, and may he soon be with our Lord in the glory of heaven. God bless.
Father Christopher M. O’Connor is the pastor of St. Mary’s of Winfield Church, Woodside