(1928 – 2016)
December 24, 2016
With sadness on this Christmas Eve, we announce that our brother, Paulist Fr. David W. O’Brien, has passed into eternal life. He died this morning at the Mohun Healthcare Center in Columbus, OH, at the age of 88.
Fr. O’Brien was a well-loved and respected Catholic campus minister, pastor and leader of the Paulist Fathers community.
A native of Hartford, CT, he was the son of Arthur and Mary Driscoll O’Brien. After graduating from St. Bonaventure University, he entered our novitiate in 1950.
Fr. O’Brien was ordained on May 3, 1956, by Cardinal Francis Spellman at the Church of St. Paul The Apostle in New York City. He was one of 17 men ordained that day, the largest class thus far in our community’s history.
His first assignment was as a campus minister at the University of Texas in Austin. In his 12 years there, he directed the construction of the University Catholic Center and served as an advisor to the local bishop during the Second Vatican Council.
After one year as a chaplain at the University of Connecticut, Fr. O’Brien was elected first consultor of the Paulist Fathers in 1970 as our community adopted a new constitution following the Council.
In 1977, he was named pastor and superior of St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish in Boulder, CO, serving the University of Colorado.
He returned to Austin in 1984 as pastor of St. Austin Parish. In 1990, from his post in Texas, he was called to serve as vice president of our community. In that role, he also served as director of the Paulist Center in Boston on an interim basis.
In 1995, at age 67, Fr. O’Brien accepted the invitation to become director of St. Thomas More Newman Center, the Catholic campus ministry at The Ohio State University in Columbus, OH, as well as superior of the Paulist Fathers in that city. In this eight years as director, he spearheaded the renovation and expansion of the center and established the largest chapter of the Paulist Associates.
He entered senior ministry status in 2004 but remained active at the Newman Center, always present at the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass even after he moved to the Mohun Center (thanks to the efforts of many devoted friends and parishioners).
Fr. O’Brien is survived by his brother Paulist Fathers, many nieces and nephews and countless friends.
A wake will be held at St. Thomas More Newman Center in Columbus on Thursday, January 5, from 6 to 8 p.m.
Fr. O’Brien’s funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m., Saturday, January 7, at the Newman Center. Paulist Fr. Eric Andrews, president of our community, will serve as the principal celebrant. Paulist Fr. Vinny McKiernan will preach the homily.
Burial will follow at a date to be announced in the Paulist Fathers section of the St. Thomas the Apostle Church Cemetery in Oak Ridge, NJ.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Paulist Fathers, 415 West 59th Street, New York, NY 10019, or online via paulist.org/give.
While we mourn the loss of Fr. O’Brien, we are comforted in the knowledge that our brother has gone to the Lord on Christmas Eve. He loved to preside and preach at Midnight Mass. This year, we pray that he will celebrate the heavenly liturgy at the altar on high, surrounded by the choirs of angels who greeted the shepherds on that holy night so long ago.
January 7, 2017
This homily was given at the funeral Mass of Paulist Fr. David W. O’Brien by Paulist Fr. Vinny McKiernan. The Mass was held on January 7, 2017, at St. Thomas More Newman Center, in Columbus, OH, with Paulist Fr. Eric Andrews as celebrant. Fr. O’Brien’s remains were interred on January 28, 2017 in the Paulist Fathers section of St. Thomas the Apostle Cemetery in Oak Ridge, NJ.
I want to thank Kevin for proclaiming the Gospel. Kevin is a permanent deacon in the Columbus diocese. He was a graduate student here and a member of our young adult group. He says he’s a deacon because of Fr. Dave.
Once upon a time, in 1950, I met Dave O’Brien when we were both novices in the Paulist novitiate in Oak Ridge, NJ. If you do the math, that was 66 years ago. Some years ago, there was a song called “Route 66,” and there was a TV show by that name. So, I’m going to be with Dave as he traveled his “Route 66” and share that with you.
Many people say Dave had a sense of humor. I would say he “played with the facts.” At that time, most of us in the novitiate had just two years of college. Dave, who had graduated from St. Bonaventure University, had four years of college. When we all went to down to St. Paul’s College in Washington, D.C., he had to take a year of philosophy. So, instead of being two years ahead of us, he was only one year ahead. Now, his version is that he skipped a year. My version is he fell back a year. So, that’s how we got started and that’s how we continued.
The journey on Route 66 started in Oak Ridge, NJ. It went on to Washington, D.C. and then New York City, where in 1956 he was one of 17 men ordained – the largest class of Paulists in years.
Let me take you through the 66 years. Dave was at the University of Texas for 12 years, helping to construct the center there. Then, he spent one year at the University of Connecticut, went to the University of Colorado in Boulder, and finally came here to The Ohio State University. During his time in Austin, he was chosen as the first consultor of the Paulist Fathers in a new administration that we had. The president of the community at the time was a fellow classmate of ours, Tom Stransky. Later, in another administration, he was chosen to be vice president. The first consultor and the vice president, together with the president, operate the Paulist community day to day.
The Gospel that was chosen today says Jesus, who is the light of the world, says to us “You are the light of the world” – you. Dave heard that. And Jesus says, “You must shine; you must.” I think that is the only place in the Gospel where the word “must” is used. And it says you must shine, so that people will see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. So, the Paulist community saw the good works, saw the light that was Dave O’Brien. Austin, TX, Storrs, CT, Boulder, CO, and then Columbus, OH: he brought his light to those places and to us.
“You are the light of the world and you must shine.” Dave was not afraid of the responsibility that he had as pastor and director, first consultor and vice president. He was not afraid to let his light shine, but he also believed in collaboration with his fellow Paulists and the laity.
When you are mandated to shine, you are also mandated not to put a bushel basket on yourself. So, Dave blossomed in all those ministries. And part of his blossoming and part of his success was that he did not put a bushel basket on other people either. He tried to incorporate the light that they had and the mandate that they too had to be the light of the world; and that, too, is part of the genius of his leadership.
He came here to Columbus in 1995. The reason I’m still able to work pretty much full-time in ministry is that I’ve never been in charge. So, I was glad to see Dave in 1995, especially since we were having some difficulties here. He came with a very open, positive, healing presence and energy… and the community is ever grateful for that.
By way of honoring Dave, let’s talk about some of the things that happened here. One afternoon in the common room of the Paulists, he said, “You know, the Paulist community wants us to think about establishing Paulist Associates. And I think it’s a great idea, but why don’t you be in charge of it because I wouldn’t want it to be the pastor’s special group.” So, I said, “OK.” It ended up not being the pastor’s special group – it was Dave’s special group. It was the first group of Paulist Associates that was established in the community. They’re still thriving, and there are a number of Associates here today because of Dave’s vision and energy.
There was still much going on here. We had a large RCIA group, and on Sundays after the Gospel and the homily, they left to go to Break Open the Word. There wasn’t much room here; in fact, they were using staff offices, and sometimes they just had to sit on the floor outside the offices because there were so many of them. If we wanted to get into our offices, we had to step over them. So, Dave thought that wasn’t too good for welcoming people who wanted to enter the church.
Then there was the urgency of trying to take care of the children and our families – especially those using the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, which requires a lot of equipment; there was just no place to put it. So, it was those two urgencies, as well as the need for more office space, a daily chapel and a student lounge, that motivated him to start a renovation and expansion of the Newman Center. That happened around the year 2000.
There’s a picture of him with Bishop Griffin at the groundbreaking for the new construction. The symbolic shovel from that ceremony is mounted on the wall outside the O’Brien Conference Room, dedicated to Fr. Dave. We bantered back and forth about that; mostly he would initiate it. People might mention that in honor of my 50th anniversary, there was a bench dedicated at the labyrinth at the university. And Fr. Dave would say, “Yeah, and all I got was a shovel.”
While you’re laughing, let’s keep it going. I write a weekly word play and have published some of those, and when we gathered, I might spontaneously come up with a new one. Folks would laugh or groan, mostly laugh, and Fr. Dave would say, “Don’t encourage him. I’ve had to put up with that for 50 years!”
I said that in 1950 I met Dave and he set out on Route 66. I also did my Route 66. I’m glad that our paths crossed again in 1995 and stayed crossed for the next 21 years.
Going back to Dave’s light shining: When he had been ordained for about eight years, while he was in Texas, he was chosen by the bishop there to attend the fourth session of Vatican II. He was thrilled to go and be with our classmate, Tom Stransky, who at the time was on the ecumenical and interfaith panel for the Vatican. He was proud to have participated in the Council, which he embraced fully in the years to follow.
Pope Francis says a shepherd should lead his flock, be in front, but also be in back in case someone gets hurt or strays. But above all, the shepherd should be in the midst of the flock, even to have the smell of the sheep. That pretty much symbolizes or sums up Dave: in the front, in the back, in the middle. But even when you’re in the middle, you may not understand the sheep.
At this very pulpit, when Dave was celebrating his 50th anniversary, there was some reference to pictures of him being kissed or hugged by women. And he said, “Oh, that reminds me. Once I gave a homily on marriage, and I thought it was great and the people said, ‘Thanks for your great homily, Father.’ But this one Irish lady said, ‘Glory be to God, Father, I wish I knew as little about marriage as you do.’” I think that is what all priests need once in a while.
Dave was always open to learning. He participated in the monthly meetings of a Catholic faculty group, a weekly interfaith book discussion at the Ohio State Faculty Club, and a monthly meeting of members of Common Ground, a dialogue group inspired by Cardinal Bernardin.
Let me try to sum up here. When word got out that Fr Dave had died – you know how word gets out these days – we had an e-mail from a former graduate student.
He said, “I’m really sad to hear of Fr. Dave’s passing… but I’m extremely grateful that by God’s grace he was a massive part of my life in graduate school days when I attended St. Thomas More Newman Center. I was at Ohio State from 1994-1999 while Fr. Dave was the director there. We all knew Fr. Dave for his sense of humor. I remember he had this sign in his office that said, ‘I can only please one person per day. Today is not your day. Tomorrow does not look good either.’”
Albert goes on: “Fr. Dave was such a blessing to me. He epitomized the Newman Center’s message that ‘All Are Welcome.’ Fr. Dave, along with the priests and staff of the Newman Center and the Newman Center community, were a large part of my life. As I’m sure as he did for many others, Fr. Dave gave me critical counsel for my personal challenges and valuable encouragement for my career. I’m glad Fr. Dave was able to meet my wife before we were married.” (I’m not sure Dave was glad, because he was trying to get Albert to be a priest!)
Albert concluded, “My family and I are currently in New Zealand and I miss him dearly.”
At the end of the video we saw earlier, there was a quote from the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Fr. Dave loved to celebrate Christmas Eve Mass and that particular phrase – “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” – was special. He felt people who had been away from the church and came back only for Christmas Midnight Mass gave him an opportunity to reach out to them or the church to reach out to them. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Dave died on Christmas Eve at 1:30 in the morning. Dave, I hope the hopes and fears of all your years have been met in God.
Fr. Joe, Fr. Steve, Fr. Chuck and I want to acknowledge with gratitude the Dominican Sisters of Peace and their personnel at the Mohun Health Care Center. Dave was there for seven years. He appreciated all the Newman Center visitors who took him out to lunch. We’re also grateful to the Newman Center members who brought him to the Center every Sunday for the 10 o’clock Mass. That’s why we have the stole there in the chair where he sat when he would come.
Whenever I would visit Dave at Mohun Hall, I would bless him, just simply, “The blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit descend upon you.” But he would give the blessing from the Book of Numbers, which we had on the Feast of Mary, January 1: “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you, the Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
We did that the night before he died. He had a hard time raising his hand, but he did raise his hand and whispered those words. I had not brought the ritual that has certain prayers for the dying, but I was grateful that I could say with him the prayers that we all say when we don’t know what to say. And he couldn’t speak but he was able to articulate the prayers. And so, we said the Lord’s Prayer. We’ve all said that many times, and it’s familiar – and it should be. “Familiar” means family – and the first words are “Our Father.” We continued that prayer, and then we said the “Hail Mary” and let the words of Jesus and Mary wash over us – “now and at the hour of our death.” And the hour of death happened six hours later.
Dave, we thank you for being a light in our world. Let’s all pray again one of our common Catholic prayers that’s said at the graveside: “Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.” Amen.