Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 8, 2000
O'Brien won with humour
Former vicar general remembered as one who made people come alive
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
He enjoyed golf a great deal and if his opponent's score was too good he would suggest that maybe he was neglecting his ministry.
Now, if the game was going his way, he would say that maybe his adversary was neglecting his golf.
Msgr. Albert O'Brien will be remembered as a witty, joyful guy, a priest's priest, a man of compassion and a liberal.
O'Brien, former managing editor of the Western Catholic - the precursor of the Western Catholic Reporter - and vicar general of the Edmonton Archdiocese, died April 21, Good Friday. He was 84.
"I'll remember him as a true priest," said retired Edmonton Archbishop Joseph MacNeil. "He was a priest's priest. Other priests saw him as a model, as someone they could look to for leadership."
Greg Schiller, who assisted O'Brien in his duties as managing editor of the Western Catholic from 1944 to 1961, described O'Brien as "the best boss you can ever find" and as a "dedicated editor," although he admitted that in those days "we didn't have much editing."
"In those days we did everything, including cleaning the office, and although he was a pastor he always did his share."
The two studied together at St. Joseph's Seminary and Schiller recalls "getting into a lot of trouble with him" at the seminary. "He was a really nice guy."
Msgr. Donald MacDonald met O'Brien in 1949 when O'Brien was a professor at the seminary. They became good friends and eventually O'Brien became the young seminarian's mentor and spiritual advisor. "He was someone I could turn to for advice."
After his ordination, MacDonald continued to seek O'Brien's advice in many areas of Church life. "He was a wise-man and had a lot of influence," he recalled.
"He did a lot to help in the implementation of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council because he could get along with everyone, liberal or conservative."
Said MacDonald: "I'll remember him as an excellent priest, someone who cherished his ministry, a man with a great sense of humour and a loyal friend. He would put everyone at ease with his smile and charming Irish wit."
Born in Edmonton in 1916, O'Brien decided to become a priest at age six.
"I loved priests," he told the WCR in 1994, remembering his days as an altar server. "And I could rip off those prayers 100 per cent. I loved the Mass in school."
The young O'Brien quickly grew to grab centre stage. At age seven, his mother took him to Edmonton's CBC Radio station to strut his stuff. He sang: "Once upon a time there were three little foxes, they didn't have shoes and they didn't have socks-es." He didn't get airtime.
In grade school he enjoyed making students laugh and he and they got the strap more than once. As a teenager, he seemed hardly on the road to priesthood as he flirted with the forbidden - sneaking smokes in the boy's washroom and skipping classes.
But having been taught that improperly touching girls was sinful, he did not suffer the moral confusion of today's teen. "Necking, but no French kissing," he said in a 1994 interview on the occasion of his 50 years of priesthood.
By age 20, O'Brien had a steady girlfriend and as a bookkeeper for Hudson Bay Fur Trade Depot earned about $100 a month, enough to get married. So what stopped him? The call to the priesthood nagged.
"I'm convinced God wants me to be a priest," he finally told his girlfriend.
"I can't fight that," she replied.
O'Brien's quick wit was disarming. An annoyed parishioner once confronted him to demand an explanation for barring priests from marriage. He quipped: "I asked every woman I knew but they wouldn't have me."
"Msgr. O'Brien could find humour in everything; he was always smiling," recalls Archbishop MacNeil.
He was also a compassionate man. "We often played golf together and he was a better golfer than I am but now and then he would let the archbishop win," MacNeil laughed.
Ordained in 1944, O'Brien started out as an assistant at St. Joseph's Cathedral. His work included organizing and mediating labour disputes.
He was managing editor of the Western Catholic from 1949 to 1961, helped establish the Marian Centre, was provincial chaplain for the Knights of Columbus, was bursar at St. Joseph's Seminary as well as seminary professor, was pastor of St. Ambrose Parish in Maple Hill, administrator of St. Michael's Parish in Edmonton, and pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Sherwood Park and Edmonton's St. John the Evangelist.
In 1983 he was appointed vicar-general of the Edmonton Archdiocese and was given the title of monsignor the following year. He resided at the Catholic Pastoral Centre since 1990 and was made vicar general to the priests in 1991.
"Msgr. O'Brien was always loyal to the archbishop and could relate well to priests and religious of the archdiocese," recalled MacNeil. "He related well to everybody. He could listen to the people and then relate their concerns to the priests and the archbishop. He was respected and trusted in the archdiocese."
O'Brien thrived on parish work and, as pastor at St. John, built friendships by walking in the pews before Mass.
"People started to come alive," his pastoral assistant from those days, Sister Connie Piska, told the WCR in 1994. "They fought for the front pews. They almost put their names on them."
"He encouraged people to participate in the total life of the Church," said MacNeil. "He was a very good priest."
O'Brien was a liberal and he was always out front with his views. "I think we should have married priests," he said a few years ago. "It's a different world. There are more temptations and opportunities and the advantages of celibacy are not that evident."
Until the Second Vatican Council many people thought priests were akin to perfect but O'Brien said he was quick to disappoint them. "I didn't know until I was a priest for many years that God loved us even when we sinned," he once admitted.