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Long-time priest touched many lives over 77 years loss for community



December 16, 2005

Archive HomeLong-time priest touched many lives over 77 years a loss for community

Father Thomas O'Brien
Retired priest of the archdiocese and former superintendent of Catholic schools who died Dec. 3.
Photo by St. Vincent de Paul Parish.

Special to The Catholic Voice

 If you were looking for a friend or a guiding hand, Father Thomas O'Brien was the man to go to. The priest, who died earlier this month, had admirers in Catholics and non-Catholics alike who were drawn to his unassuming and humble personality.

'He could relate so well to people's brokenness." said Father Dan Kampschneider, pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Omaha where Father O'Brien resided until his death. 'He knew the human condition and people sensed that very quickly. He was on their level in terms of relating to them, but he always led them further in whatever insight or guidance he might have."

Father O'Brien died Dec. 3 of breathing and circulation problems at Bergan Mercy Medical Center. He was 77. A wake service and funeral Mass were held at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Omaha.

He is survived by a nephew, Tom O'Brien, and sister-in-law, Bette O'Brien, both of Omaha.

Nearly 1,000 people attended the funeral Mass Dec. 5, including 67 priests of the Archdiocese of Omaha. Bishop William J. Dendinger, a friend of Father O'Brien's, presided at the Mass.

Father Tom Ward, homilist, praised his long-time friend's honesty and willingness 'to name things as they really are in himself and in others.

'He was really just a simple, good man. He wasn't very complicated," Father Ward said. 'He lived what he preached. His God was a God of absolute love and what he taught was that God not only loves us, but that God loves us exactly the way we are."


Father O'Brien was born Aug. 10, 1928, to Dan and Alice O'Brien. He graduated from St. Margaret Mary School and Creighton Prep, both in Omaha.

He served in the Army from 1946 to 1948. When he returned from Korea, he attended Creighton University and received his undergraduate degree in 1950. He also earned a bachelor's degree in 1951 from St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., where he completed his theological studies. He also received a master's degree in education from Creighton in 1968.

After being ordained a priest in 1955, Father O'Brien's first assignment was as assistant pastor at St. Pius X Parish in Omaha. In 1962 he was transferred to Sacred Heart Parish in Norfolk, where he also served as superintendent of Burns High School and was credited for merging two Catholic high schools into Norfolk Catholic High School.

He was named pastor of St. Bonaventure Parish in Raeville in 1966, and also served as superintendent for Pope John XXIII Central Catholic High School in Elgin.

In 1969, he became superintendent of schools for the archdiocese. During his six-year assignment, he was the chaplain at the Notre Dame Sisters' Motherhouse in Omaha.

He was named pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Omaha in 1977 and served in that capacity for 19 years until he became senior associate pastor at Omaha's St. Vincent de Paul Parish. He retired in 1998, but continued to help with Masses at the parish until recent years. He resided at the parish's rectory.

Father O'Brien was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Presidential Citation from Creighton University in 1990, Hall of Fame Inductee at Creighton Prep in 2002 and the Roncalli Catholic High School Service Award.


Father O'Brien will be missed by many, but particularly by those who would call him for advice or visit him at his home, Father Kampschneider said.

'He had a wide network of friends. Every morning there was somebody visiting him. Every evening and during the day there were people stopping by," he said. 'His phone would ring almost continually."

He also will be remembered as being a great confidant, guide and advisor for many people who were involved with Alcoholics Anonymous, Father Kampschneider said, noting that Father O'Brien had been sober for 31 years.

Although his poor health did not allow his to do much liturgical work at the parish, he continued to preside at the Children's Christmas Eve Mass.

'People loved his great sense of humor," Father Kampschneider said. 'He was able to relate to the children as well as the adults and was famous for a quick homily. He always had some phrase or idea that he would be feeding the people. He was very clever with that."

Phrases like, It's not what we go through, it's what we grow through or Blessed are the flexible, for they shall never be out of shape, were what Father O'Brien was known for, he said. They were shared at many retreats and sometimes even on his outgoing message on his answering machine.

Father Kampschneider said he was blessed to have lived with the late priest and to have shared so many wonderful times together.

'He was a brother priest, but he became a brother where every day we had a meal together or at least we would visit with each other," he said. 'His 50 years of priesthood was a great gift for me. His insight and guidance as a pastor were very helpful."

Father O'Brien's Irish heritage showed through in his personality, Father Kampschneider said.

'He was in some ways like a leprechaun," he said. 'He had that impish personality, wonderful smile, twinkle in his eyes, clever little thoughts."

The late priest himself summed up his spirituality in a homily he gave at his jubilee celebration May 1.

'A dash of guilt, a sprinkling of superstition, a thimble of tears, a spoonful of laughter, all wrapped up in the mantle of Mary," Father O'Brien said at his jubilee. 'That is the basis of my Irish spirituality."

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