Born: 22 September 1936, Dublin
Entered: 07 September 1954, St Mary's, Emo, County Laois
Ordained: 20 July 1968, Milltown Park, Dublin
Final Vows: 05 November 1977, Canisius College, Chikuni, Zambia
Died: 17 July 2007, Mater Hospital, Dublin - Zambia-Malawi Province (ZAM)
Part of the St Francis Xavier, Gardiner St, Dublin community at the time of death
Transcribed HIB to ZAM : 15 August 1973
by 1963 at Chivuna, Monze, N Rhodesia - studying language Regency
by 1971 at Swansea, Wales (ANG) studying
◆ Companions in Mission1880- Zambia-Malawi (ZAM) Obituaries :
Des O’Brien was born on 22 September 1936 in Dublin. He did his early schooling with the Christian Brothers in Monkstown obtaining his leaving certificate in 1954. That same year, he began his life as a Jesuit in Emo Park. After his novitiate, he did his juniorate at Rathfarnham Castle, obtaining a BA degree in Arts from UCD Dublin in 1959. Philosophy studies followed at Milltown Park from which Des obtained a licentiate in 1962.
For his regency he was sent to the then Northern Rhodesia. He studied Chitonga for a year at Chikuni and other mission stations. In 1963 he taught at Canisius College and the following year at Munali Secondary School in Lusaka. Completing his regency, he returned to Milltown Park for theology studies and was ordained on 10 July 1968. Tertianship in Dublin followed and in 1970 he went to Swansea University in the UK and obtained a diploma in social policy and administration.
Returning to Zambia in 1971, Des was appointed parish priest in Monze where he served until 1975. Among his many pastoral activities he began a strong youth club called the Red Arrows which was well known for its football success. He was then appointed chaplain of the lay apostolate for the Monze Diocese, living in Kizito Pastoral Centre from 1976 to 1980 and then at Charles Lwanga Jesuit community from 1980-84. He initiated renewal programs for the laity and traveled throughout the diocese giving workshops. During this time he also became involved with the charismatic renewal and provided steady and balanced leadership.
Des had a sabbatical in the United States in 1981, working on spiritual direction. On his return he was appointed national chaplain of the YCS and took his national team around the country in a minibus offering workshops in all the dioceses. As rector of Xavier House, he was able to provide care for the older members of the community and offer support for the novice director without interfering in his work. The late Paul Lungu often commented on how much he depended on Des’ support in his work with the novices.
The Episcopal Conference asked him to be national secretary for the laity while the Provincial appointed him as delegate of formation. He moved to Matero for a year but then went to Luwisha House which was more central for his work. In 1998 he was made superior of Luwisha House. He was a great man in community with his ready wit and happy demeanour. He was an excellent mimic and often had his companions rolling around in laughter with a few well chosen words and a little gesture. Since his job as delegate and superior took up more and more of his time, he withdrew from his position with the laity. As a delegate for formation, the young men found in him a great listener. However he could be challenging, but he was always fair and supportive. During his years in Lusaka Des offered regular courses on prayer and spiritual direction to the novice groups at Kalemba Hall as well as to the sisters’ formation program at Kalundu Centre. He was a fine teacher, entertaining yet substantial in the material he offered. Many Church personnel came to him for counselling and direction.
In 2000 Des moved back to Monze and took over Kizito Pastoral Centre, offering retreats and seminars as well as renewing the physical structure of the plant. The Bishop asked him to take care of the young priests of the diocese with regular meetings and direction. He was the chairperson of the organising committees for the celebration of the Centenary of the Jesuit arrival in the Monze Diocese. He kept the different committees working together. However towards the time of the big celebration at Chikuni he was quite ill with constant bronchial problems. He did not want to take his home leave until after the big event. When he finally went home it was found that he had inoperable cancer in his left lung. He underwent chemo- and radio-therapy but he weakened with time and eventually lost his voice. He was accepting of his condition and at peace with it. In an email in May he wrote: ’The picture is not bright but, thank God, I am very deeply at peace (even joyful!) I have no doubt that this is all the fruit of the many prayers being offered for me. I am ready for anything and in the meantime enjoying all the leisure I have’.
He tells how a woman from the parish in St Francis Xavier, Gardiner St., came up to him after a Sunday Mass in which he concelebrated, grabbed his hand and said: ’Thanks, Father, for the words’. Des was surprised and said to her, ’but I didn’t say anything, my voice is too weak’. The lady whispered in response, ‘Being up there silent on the altar with us every day is a powerful homily’. He entered the fullness of life on 17 July 2007.
Interfuse No 133 : Special Issue September 2007
Fr Desmond Francis (Des) O’Brien (1936-2007) : Zambia-Malawi Province
Jim McGloin writes:
Des O'Brien was born on 22 September 1936 in Dublin. He did his early schooling with the Christian Brothers in Monkstown obtaining his leaving certificate in 1954. That same year, he began his life as a Jesuit in Emo Park. After his novitiate, he did his juniorate at Rathfarnham castle, obtaining a BA degree in arts from University College Dublin in 1959. Philosophy studies followed at Tullabeg from which Des obtained a licentiate in 1962.
For his regency Des was sent to then Northern Rhodesia. He studied Chitonga for a year at Chikuni and other mission stations. In 1963 he taught at Canisius College and the following year at Munali Secondary School in Lusaka. Completing his regency, he returned to Milltown Park for theology studies and was ordained a priest on 10 July 1968. Tertianship in Dublin followed his fourth year of theology. In 1970 he went to Swansea in the UK and studied at the University College there obtaining a diploma in social policy and administration.
Returning to Zambia in 1971, Des was appointed parish priest in Monze where he served until 1975. Among his many pastoral activities at the parish, he began a strong youth club called the Red Arrows which was well known for its football success. After his fruitful time in the parish, Des was appointed the chaplain of the lay apostolate for the Diocese of Monze, living in Kizito Pastoral Centre from 1976 to 1980 and then at the Charles Lwanga Jesuit Community from 1980 to 1984. As chaplain, Des initiated many different formation and renewal programmes for the laity and traveled throughout the diocese giving workshops. During this time, he also became involved with the charismatic renewal and provided steady and balanced leadership in the renewal.
Des had a sabbatical in the United States in 1984, working in the area of spiritual direction. On his return to Zambia he was appointed national chaplain of the YCS, living at Luwisha House. In 1986 he was appointed rector of Xavier House while continuing his work with YCS. Des was a dynamic powerhouse in dealing with young people. He would take his YCS national team around the country in the minibus, offering workshops in all the dioceses of the country. As rector of Xavier House, he was able to provide care for the older members of the community and offer support to the novice director without interfering in his work. The late Paul Lungu often commented on how much he depended on Des's support in carrying out his work with the novices.
In 1992 Des completed his term as rector and started winding up as chaplain of YCS. The Episcopal Conference asked him to serve as national secretary for the laity and the Provincial had appointed him delegate of formation. He moved to Matero and lived there for a year, later moving to Luwisha House which was more central for his work. In 1998 he was appointed superior of Luwisha House. Always doing the work assigned to him diligently, Des threw himself into the work of the lay apostolate and the work of formation. However, he found that he could not do both adequately; he withdrew from the work with the laity to spend more time as delegate of formation.
From the men in formation who experienced Des as their delegate, you often hear that he was a great listener, that he could be tough and challenging, but that he was always fair and supportive. He managed to blend a concern for the well being of the individual and a concern for the well being of the Society, both of which were important for the delegate's job.
During his years in Lusaka, Des also offered regular courses, mostly on prayer and spiritual direction, to the novice groups at Kalemba Hall and to the sisters' formation programme at Kalundu Centre. He was a fine teacher, entertaining yet substantial in the material he offered. During those years many sisters, priests and lay people came to him for counseling and spiritual direction. His welcoming attitude and compassionate listening provided many with new strength and direction.
In 2000 Des moved back to the Diocese of Monze where he had begun his apostolic work and took over as director of Kizito Pastoral Centre. Once again he took on the work with great enthusiasm, offering retreats and seminars, renewing the physical structure and adding new facilities to the centre. The Bishop of Monze found in him a wise counselor and would often seek advice from him. The Bishop also asked him to take care of the young priests of the diocese (the under-fives), offering them spiritual direction, regular meetings as a group and other care. Des was also chairperson of the organizing committees for the celebration of the centenary of the Jesuit arrival in the Monze Diocese. In his usual well-organized and efficient manner, Des kept the different committees at their tasks and was able to organization a wonderful celebration of the centenary. Towards the time of the big celebration at Chikuni, however, Des was quite ill with constant bronchial problems. He did not want to move up his home leave until after the celebrations.
Although Des worked hard and was very efficient, he also gave time and enjoyed his community. He was welcoming and hospitable. He spent time with the members of the community at prayer, meals and recreation. He had a way of engaging and a sense of humour that were much appreciated. He also an ability to mimic others in their way of talking and acting that was never hurtful, but very true to life. Father General in a letter written to Des for his golden jubilee in 2004 said, “They (his fellow Jesuits) better than I can witness to the inner life that you nourished in prayer, for you could not have lived and served as you have done without a close relationship with Jesus”. Des did have a close relationship with Jesus, nourished by prayer and the Eucharist, a relationship he deeply desired and was willing to share with others.
When Des did finally go on his home leave in September 2005, it was discovered that his health problems stemmed not from bronchial infection but from an inoperable malignant growth in the upper part of his left lung. He underwent chemo and later radiotherapy to reduce the tumour. The treatment left him weakened and caused him to lose most of his vocal functions, but he was accepting of his condition and at peace with it.
In an e-mail in May, Des wrote: “The picture is not too bright but, thank God, I am very deeply at peace (even joyful!). I have no doubt that this is all the fruit of the many prayers being offered for me. I am ready for anything and in the meantime enjoying all the leisure I have”.
He also reflected on his life as a priest with limited ability to function as a priest in a recent issue of Interfuse (Summer 2007, No.132), in which he expressed the frustration he had in not being able to exercise his priesthood in the active way he had been used to. He relates this incident:
“One Sunday morning, having concelebrated a parish Mass, I walked down the aisle with my companion to the end of the Church to greet the congregation as is the custom. As we shook hands and greeted people, an elderly lady made a beeline for me and grabbing my hand, said, ‘Thanks, Father, for those words”. Surprised by this comment, I replied, ‘But I didn't say anything, my voice is too weak’. Learning over, she whispered in my ear, ‘Being up there silent on the altar with us every day is a powerful homily’.”
Des was very consoled by this. He had made a pilgrimage to Lourdes in September 2006 seeking healing but there was no physical change in his condition. However, he wrote: “I was much more at peace and much more accepting of what had happened to me. I am stiil substantially at peace as I pray daily, 'O God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”.
Des then reflected in his article, “These few simple words connected me in an extraordinary way with the deeper mystery underlying my present circumstances which I had begun to sense but was resisting, how to be a priest without any normal or visible ministry”. That deeper Mystery guided Des throughout his life, in his active priestly ministry and finally in his silent priestly ministry. Des entered the fullness of that Mystery on 17 July 2007.
From a homily delivered by Clive Dillon-Malone on 25th July, 2007, at St. Ignatius Church, Lusaka:
There's a popular saying that "good goods appear in small packages". Well, this is certainly true of Fr. Des O'Brien, He was small in stature but, like our founder, St. Ignatius, or St. Paul - who were also short in stature - Des was tall in spiritual riches.
Des was always conscious of his height. He once told me how embarrassed he was in having to go into the children's section of shoe shops as the shoes in the adult's section were all too large for him! The late Fr. Bill Lane was a very good friend of Des and they used to joke one another about their height as Bill was also quite short. There was an occasion when, on his 50+ birthday, Des approached Bill in a jovial mood and said proudly, “I'm 50 today”. Bill replied: “Is that in centimetres or in inches?” On another occasion for a concelebrated Mass, Bill took an impish delight in handing Des an alb which was about six feet long! However, Des learned to joke about his height and he was quite capable to giving back as much as he got in good humour. He always had a great sense of humour and a gift for turning the simplest of happenings into amusing incidents. His ability to mimic others contributed to this and he was always good fun in a group.
Des was born in 1936 and he entered the Jesuits in 1954 at the age of 18. After two years of novitiate at Emo in Portarlington, he went to University College Dublin where he spent three years doing a pass B.A. degree from 1956-1959. I mention "pass degree" because, although Des was always a very hard worker, he was not intellectually gifted in the way that so many of his fellow Jesuits in his year were, who were taking honours degrees. Although he never showed any sign of resenting others, his lack of high-powered academic potential accompanied by his small stature left him with an inferiority complex against which he struggled throughout his life. After his university degree, he spent three years in Tullabeg in Ireland from 1959-1962 studying philosophy which he also found difficult. But it was when he came to Zambia in 1962 that his real talents began to emerge and, from then on, he continued to grow in self-confidence and in pastoral achievements.
Des had a great way of relating with children and he would laugh and joke with them at his ease. When he began learning ciTonga in Chivuna on his arrival in Zambia, he quickly became proficient at speaking the language on account of his relating with children. Although they would make fun of mistakes he would make, he learned from them and he could laugh at himself. During vacations, he would enjoy joining Fr. Joe McDonald down in the valley in Fumbo where he increased his ability to speak ciTonga.
In 1963, he moved into Canisius College where he taught for a year and where his ability to relate with young people shone, and where, he was in charge of the medical needs of the pupils. He told me once an amusing incident. When a transfusion group came to Canisius to collect blood, the boys were very scared of giving blood. In order to put them at ease, he told them to come and watch as he gave blood. There were all crowded around the window looking in, but just after giving blood, he fainted. The boys just ran!
In 1964, he moved to Lusaka where he taught for a year at Munali Secondary School before returning to Ireland where he studied theology for four years from 1965-1969 at Milltown Park. He was ordained a priest in 1968. After finishing theology, he went to the University of Swansea in Wales where he obtained a diploma in social policy and administration. The topic of his dissertation was, “The Primary School Leaver Crisis in Zambia”.
On returning to Zambia in 1971, he was appointed as parish priest in Monze, a ministry which he continued for five years, and during which his ability to converse fluently in ciTonga grew. Then from 1976 to 1980, while living at Kizito Pastoral Centre, he was appointed as Director of the Lay Apostolate in the diocese of Monze, and was also involved with the on-going formation of Zambian priests there. A further item that needs to be mentioned is that Des played an important role in the charismatic renewal in Zambia. He had set in motion the Charismatic Movement in the diocese of Monze, at Musaka Secondary School in Choma, and later in Lusaka.
From Kizito, he moved to Charles Lwanga Teacher Trainer College, where he remained for four years from 1980 to 1984. He had already become diocesan lay apostolate chaplain in 1976 and he continued with this work while at Charles Lwanga. He then went on sabbatical for a year in 1984 to Berkeley in California and, on his return, he resided at Luwisha House for a year during which time he was appointed as National Chaplain to Zambian Young Christian Students (ZYCS), a position he held from 1985 to 1993.
After his sabbatical, Des told me of a rather frustrating experience he had. Before going on sabbatical, he had burnt all of his retreat notes so that he might have a clean start with new material when he returned. Just after returning, however, he was asked to give a retreat which he accepted - but then, he suddenly remembered that he had destroyed all his notes and hadn't yet produced new ones! Needless to say, he regretted his earlier action.
By this time, Des' many talents relating to pastoral concerns, spirituality, managerial skills, and ability to assume authoritative positions were noted. In 1986, he was appointed Rector of our Novitiate, a position he held until 1992, and which he fulfilled with great success. He then moved to Matero for a year where he acted as Secretary for the Laity Section of the Zambian Episcopal Conference (ZEC). He held this position for three years until 1995.
In 1993, he moved from Matero to Luwisha House where he remained for seven years during which time he was also appointed Delegate for Formation of Jesuit scholastics. This is not only a very important position to have but a very difficult one as well - as the current Delegate for Formation, Fr. Charles Chilinda, will tell you. Des came to this position at a time when much suspicion and distrust had developed among young scholastics from a previous era, and it took a lot of skill and prudence to do away with built up resentment and bitterness, and restore a feeling of trust and confidence. He managed to do this very successfully. Indeed, it was noted that departures from the Society diminished during this period. He also did a lot to open up more flexible opportunities for different kinds of studies which was much appreciated.
Des was appointed as Superior of the Luwisha House community from 1998 to 2000. After that, he was appointed as Director and Superior of Kizito Pastoral Centre outside Monze where he remained until 2005. While there, he was not only totally dedicated to the development of spirituality programmes but he did immense work in planning and overseeing renovation and building extensions. In this respect, he was very talented in getting funding for different projects. He was also noted for his care and concern for his workers, and more particularly for those affected by HIV and AIDS for whom he obtained ARVs. During this time, Bishop Patriarca gave him the task of visiting his priests throughout the year which he did willingly, although he found it quite burdensome.
Des had become well known as a capable spiritual director and retreat giver over the years and he gave spirituality courses each year for many years at Kalundu Study Centre in Lusaka. The material of these courses was later published in book form under the title, “Lord, Teach us to Pray”. He gave courses in spirituality for many years in Kalemba Hall to religious in formation.
Des had always made himself available when asked to do anything. He found it very difficult to say 'no' to any request. However, he later admitted that he had to learn to say 'no' at times, as he was burning himself out. He was very conscientious and he put great preparation into anything he was asked to do. The negative outcome of this was that he ended up becoming so tense at times that he became sick just before an event.
Des had smoked a lot during his early years and he was aware of lung problems which he had developed. However, although he knew that he should have paid more attention to seeking medical diagnosis and treatment earlier, he left it too late. In September 2005, he went into hospital in Ireland where his condition was diagnosed as “malignant growth in the upper part of the left lung” and “inoperable cancer” for which chemo and radiation treatment were administered. For almost two years, Des underwent this treatment which was very painful and weakening. His response to his suffering was acknowledged by all in Ireland as truly admirable. He never lost his sense of humour and expressed his readiness to die once it became clear that this was inevitable within a relatively short period of time. I had visited him on a number of occasions while in Ireland in 2005 and, like so many others, I was truly edified by his positive resignation to the possibility of an early death. He soon lost his hair and wore a head cap for heat. He also became quite bloated as a result of medication. Up the end, he was determined to keep as active as possible but his energy was becoming less and less, and his ability to speak was seriously affected.
He was finally moved into the Mater Hospital for more on-the spot observation with the intention of moving him to a hospice for the terminally ill. He died more quickly than expected on the 17th July, 2007.
I've been told that Des loved looking after pigeons or doves when he was a young boy. Is it too fanciful to suggest that the Holy Spirit might have been among them in choosing Des even at this early stage for the Lord's work! May the Lord now welcome him home and reward him for his priestly ministry, and for the manner in which he has touched so many lives with his love and service. Amen.
Interfuse No 134 : Christmas 2007
IN MEMORY OF FR DESMOND O’BRIEN
An obituary from Zambia was published in Interfuse, September 2007
As an exact contemporary of Des O'Brien, standing humbly and powerlessly at the door of Gardiner St church, as his coffin was being carried out, it seemed to me that an era had passed away. It was a very different situation from that when first we met in 1954. I have vivid memories of him, while we handed in our belongings to the Socius, smiling greatly as a half-smoked cigarette was being abandoned. From then on he was part of our lives, and was diligent and cheerful, in a period that Fr Bill Johnston describes as “remote, strict, austere”. I would add the word “demanding”. Some time in his 2nd year, Donal O'Sullivan told him that he would give him vows and this assured him.
Later, he proved bright enough, but without a strong line of interest or the personal freedom to be an academic. He liked the study of history, and in class he and Paul Cullen became very friendly with a then corpulent young lady, later to acquire fame, Maeve Binchy. I wonder has she forgotten them! He liked greatly being “bird man”, and learned much about these creatures.
I don't think philosophy was his line of country. He looked after the altar boys and was very kind to them. Amidst a busy life, he may have remembered these now and again, especially the young Cantwell who died. He liked working with young people and the marginalized. (His achievements in Africa have been noted elsewhere).
His humour and liveliness were always in our background - which was something we took for granted. He enlivened many a scene for us. He was witty, a great mimic at least of certain people, and had wonderful acting ability. But he was also very shrewd and sharp. I recall several observations he made to me about myself, and they were correct. Similar remarks made to at least one other caused me some strain, though they were beneficial to the other. His judgement was good, and he had a sharp eye for traits in others that I never averted to.
He was always very true to himself. He could readily banter and give as good as he got. Sometimes some minor plans of his did not work out, but he could laugh at his misfortune. He could be serious and demanding with others, and behind the scenes smile at it all.
He developed an open, liberal train of thought, and some years ago swept me off my feet with his progressive thinking. How deep this was I don't know - it wasn't tested in any discussion. But then, people's attitudes come very much from their reading - from the people they rely on -, from their background and inclinations.
Some years ago, I said to him, “You never come to see us”, and he answered, “You never invited me”. Perhaps we are not as welcoming, as we should! We may feel too much that people like to be left alone.
I don't know what personal difficulties he had to cope with, as he tried to discover his deepest self. However there was a firm, unwavering core to his priestly commitment. His life could simply and profoundly be summed up by saying, “He served the Lord”. He was committed to Jesus, which was very evident in his final illness.
Since his return sick to Ireland, I met him fairly frequently. He was very friendly and we were at great ease - with a mutual looking up to each other. I admired his missionary experience and his ability to give. Whenever I said - many times - to him, “You've a severe blow to face up to”, he agreed, and added that he was ready for all. He added: “I never complained, and I'm not going to do so now”. Physically he resisted his cancer as long as he could, but eventually had to yield and nobly went away.
It is good for the rest of us that he has departed - to hopefully help prepare a place for us. It will be hard to find his leithéid arís.