O'Brien, Henry, 1907-1976, Jesuit priest

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O'Brien, Henry, 1907-1976, Jesuit priest

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  • 何博禮神父
  • Harry O'Brien

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23 May 1907-07 March 1976


Born: 23 May 1907, Rathmines, Dublin
Entered: 20 September 1924, St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, County Offaly
Ordained: 24 June 1937, Milltown Park, Dublin
Final Vows: 08 September 1942, Wah Yan College, Hong Kong
Died: 07 March 1976, St Francis Xavier Church, Phoenix, Arizona, USA

Brother of John (Jack) O'Brien - LEFT 18 June 1935

by 1929 at Eegenhoven, Leuven Belgium (BELG) studying
by 1932 fifth wave Hong Kong Missioners - Regency
by 1939 at St Beuno’s, Wales (ANG) making Tertianship
by 1960 at St Francis Xavier, Phoenix AZ (CAL) working

◆ Hong Kong Catholic Archives :
Father Harry O’Brien, S.J.

Prefect of Studies at Wah Yan College, Hong Kong, before and after World War II and at St. Louis Gonzaga, Macau, during the war, died at Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.A., on 7 March 1976, aged 68.

Note from Timothy Doody Entry
Another passage in this book also describes Mr. Doody busy amid shelling and bombing. During a lull in his billeting work he found a new apostolate. Two priests were sheltered in the M.E.P. Procure on Battery Path. Mr. Doody took up his position outside the Procure and boldly enquired of all who passed if they were Catholics, and, if they were, did they wish to go to confession. The results were almost startling. The most unexpected persons turned out to be Catholics, from bright young things to old China hands, and after the first start of surprise at the question in the open street in staid, pleasure-loving Hong Kong, they generally took the turn indicated by Mr. Doody and found Father Grogan of Father Fitzgerald of Father O’Brien ready to meet them inside.

◆ Irish Province News

Irish Province News 21st Year No 4 1946

Leeson St :
We were very glad to have several members of the Hong Kong inission with us for some time: Frs. P. Joy, T. Fitzgerald, and H. O'Brien, while Fr. George Byrne has joined us as one of the community.

Irish Province News 22nd Year No 1 1947

Departures for Mission Fields in 1946 :
4th January : Frs. P. J. O'Brien and Walsh, to North Rhodesia
25th January: Frs. C. Egan, Foley, Garland, Howatson, Morahan, Sheridan, Turner, to Hong Kong
25th July: Fr. Dermot Donnelly, to Calcutta Mission
5th August: Frs, J. Collins, T. FitzGerald, Gallagher, D. Lawler, Moran, J. O'Mara, Pelly, Toner, to Hong Kong Mid-August (from Cairo, where he was demobilised from the Army): Fr. Cronin, to Hong Kong
6th November: Frs. Harris, Jer. McCarthy, H. O'Brien, to Hong Kong

Irish Province News 51st Year No 3 1976

Obituary :

Fr Harry O’Brien (1924-1976)

Harry O’Brien had the misfortune of spending most of his life too far away from those who knew him best. He went to Hong Kong as a scholastic, was not very successful at learning Chinese, but held posts which for a scholastic of those days were of high importance. He was prefect of studies, gamesmaster, editor of a monthly called The Rock, and in whatever spare time he had he gave instruction. Many of those he instructed are today well known Catholics in Hong Kong.
This work was really too much for him, and going back to Ireland for theology, he acknowledged that he was very tired. He was ordained in Dublin, and did his tertianship in St Beuno’s in north Wales. Even at that time, he was in pain from the incipient arthritis which was later to cripple him - and open the door to a new life in a new land,
After tertianship, Harry returned to Hong Kong, and was again appointed prefect of studies at our big day-school in Hong Kong, Wah Yan College. (This is the name given by the founder of the school, a Catholic layman, who chose part of the name of his native village and part of his own Chinese name for the school, which he later handed over to Ours.) This time Harry worked for about three years in Wah Yan.
Then came the Pacific war and the Japanese attack on Hong Kong, 8th December, 1941. During the fortnight's siege of the colony, the Jesuits who were then in Hong Kong helped to find food and shelter for the thousands of homeless who crossed from the mainland of Kowloon at the approach of the Japanese army. This was dangerous work, because the island of Hong Kong was shelled from about eight in the morning until light failed. The nights were mostly quiet. On one occasion Harry had to bring families from the dangerous houses at sea-level facing the harbour and the Japanese guns, to the quieter, safer heights of the Peak, a fashionable district about 1800 feet above the sea, and at the time considered a “good” address. He risked his life, because the road to the Peak was a carpet of bursting shells. When the British surrendered, on Christmas day, 1941, English, Americans, and those whom the Japanese called “enemy aliens” were imprisoned until the end of the war.
The city emptied. Chinese returned to their villages, Portuguese, Indians, Irish and a few Chinese took refuge in Macau, the small Portuguese enclave on the China coast about forty miles west of Hong Kong. The Portuguese organised centres for the refugees from Hong Kong: large houses, a few small hotels and some Vacant government offices. In these centres the refugees found shelter, a minimum of food-mostly rice. But there was no school, and these young people from Hong Kong had nothing to do all day but roam the streets, and at night, sit at the doors and look at the moon.
The Portuguese governor of Macau and the British consul first got the idea of a school for the refugees, and they approached Fr Paddy Joy, then Superior of the Mission. The Portuguese government agreed to give a house, books, and a small salary to the staff. Harry was made prefect of studies and superior of the Jesuit community of five. He called the school Gonzaga College, or Luís Gonzaga College, as it is still known by its past pupils. Scholarly by nature and discipline, Harry directed this school through the turmoil of the war years, with an authority which inspired respect, and a kindness which made him loved. During these years in Macau, Gonzaga College had in all about 200 students. Of this number, eight are now doctors, seven are professors in American and Canadian universities: one is a lecturer in marine biology in the University of Hawaii, and three are architects: which is not a bad record for any school.
But these three years of war broke Harry - physically. He returned to Hong Kong again as prefect of studies in Wah Yan College. He was in constant pain, and arthritis was crippling him. But none knew of his pain - except his “doctor”, as he used to call the chiropractor whom he visited daily. He wasn't getting better, so the Superior of the Mission, Fr Tom Ryan, did the big thing and the wise thing. He sent him to the famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The doctors there said that Harry could not return to Hong Kong or to the humid Irish climate. Fr Ryan arranged for him to go to the dry, desert climate of Arizona, and there in the small oasis of Phoenix, Harry worked for twenty six years.
In Phoenįx, Arizona, the Jesuits of the California Province have a large day-school (Brophy), much like Belvedere. Harry taught there for a while. But it was in the parish church of St Francis Xavier that he did the work by which he will be remembered. He had that rare and precious gift of putting everyone at their ease. Maybe this was due to his obvious holiness, or to his kindness, or to his sense of humour, or to a combination of all three. Whatever it was, the people of Phoenix - a shrewd and candid cross-section of America-loved and respected him. They showed this when he died. But they also showed it in a very practical way when he celebrated his golden jubilee in the Society two years ago, in 1974. The parishioners gave him a cheque for US $14,000. Part of this was used to remodel the kitchen of the presbytery, and on the wall is a brass plate which reads: “On the occasion of the 50th year in the Society of Jesus of Father Henry ‘Harry’ O'Brien, this room was remodelled”.
He got on equally well with the community. He was spiritual father, an authority on canon law and marriage cases, and a wise and kind confessor. After the evening visit to the blessed Sacrament, he would slip into the confessional near the domestic chapel.
He was never prominent in conversation, and whether right or wrong in his opinion, he was too clear-headed to be unjust. He spoke seldom, but when he did speak, he was worth listening to. He had a quiet, well-honed wit. But it wasn't barbed: it never hurt.
The stained-glass windows in the church of St Francis Xavier, Phoenix, were designed by Harry. Few of his contemporaries - in Ireland anyhow - knew that he was an artist of quality, with a nice feeling for colour and proportion, and more than an amateur knowledge of technique, especially of oil-painting. One of his portraits of a former superior of the parish - hangs in the community library. But he never took painting seriously. He told this writer that he didn't know enough about painting to be really good, and know too much to be really bad. For him, it was a supremely relaxing hobby, and nothing more.
Harry never returned to Hong Kong. He was invited, but he felt that he had not the strength for the journey, or the courage to face anew so much that was old. He was in poor health for months, and last September, 1975, cancer of one lung was discovered. The treatment - deep-ray therapy - was painful and unavailing. Harry died on 7th March, 1976.
Fifty priests from the diocese concelebrated the requiem Mass. Bishop McCarthy was represented by his vicar-general, and him self came later to pay his respects. Harry rested for a day in the church to which he had given his best years, the coffin bathed in the desert light from the windows which he designed. He was a holy priest, a loyal Jesuit, and a good friend. May he rest in peace.

Another Jesuit writes of Harry as follows:
When I arrived in Phoenix in December 1959 Harry O’Brien was already a living legend. His white hair and his frail figure gave him the appearance of a much older man, especially to the children of the parish, all of whom knew him well.
Harry had only been ten years in Phoenix then, but that was a long time, a lot longer than most other people. He had come to an area that was open country. Brophy College Prep, the Jesuit High School, was out in the fields north of town. Its beautiful mission chapel was the parish church. The parish priests lived in a converted garage, cooled in the 100 degree summer heat by an electric fan. They served a parish with no northern boundary.
Yet such was the population explosion in Phoenix in those days that during Harry's first decade in Arizona, St Francis Xavier parish built a new million-dollar church, a parochial school with 1,000 pupils, a girls' high school with 500 girls, a convent and a rectory with accommodation for a dozen priests. The whole surrounding area for miles and miles became one of the best residential areas in Arizona.
Because so many of the people were newcomers, and because Fr O’Brien had preceded most of them, and because he looked venerable, he was revered as the old parish priest who was there longer than anyone could remember.
Harry deserved the reverence. He was a true spiritual father to the parish, constantly absorbed in every aspect of parish life. He was the earnest preacher and the patient listener, especially in the confessional. He visited the school every day walking from class to class asking a few questions and answering the many that were put to him. He organised and taught an enquiry class for adults, that ran a course of twenty weeks or so and was immediately followed by another. He handled most of the cases for the marriage tribunal, always a tedious and time-consuming chore. And he visited the old folks and the sick in their homes. A lot of his “spare” time was spent in the parlour.
This list of tasks may seem routine. But in St Francis Xavier parish they were not routine. Harry did them all, and for the most part alone. The list is probably not complete, but hopefully it portrays the picture of an indefatigable man, a man consumed with zeal for the interests of God and of his people.
Since he touched so many lives so intimately, it is not surprising that his death, although not totally unexpected, was followed by outpourings of sorrow and even of disbelief. It is a beautiful tribute to this great priest that grown men were not ashamed to weep openly as the church of St Francis Xavier was filled to capacity on two successive evenings, for the rosary and for the Mass of the Resurrection.

At the requiem Mass for Harry O’Brien, it was Fr John E Hopkins (Calif.), who has completed fourteen years in Phoenix, who delivered the homily. He mentioned the constant arthritic pain from which Harry suffered, and went on:
“In his 68 years Fr. O'Brien spent over 34 as a priest, 26 of those years with us. In 1974 when he celebrated his 50 years in the Order, he asked me to preach a sermon at the Brophy chapel on the priesthood, because it meant so much to him. We can recall, those of us who heard him preach, the razor-like sharpness of his mind, the clarity of his ideas and his scholarly approach to the subject at hand. His interest in the Church was whetted by the decrees of Vatican II, and he was an avid reader and promoter of all the new ideas which came from the Council, to make the faith more meaningful to the people of the Church he loved
Like Xavier, who taught little children the truths of the faith and baptised countless people, Fr Harry taught the children in our parochial school for many years, and this work was his joy. His work of teaching was not limited to youngsters but like Xavier he taught adults as well in our religious Inquiry Forum, and like Xavier baptised countless adults”.

There is much about Fr Harry's China days in Fr Thomas F Ryan’s book “Jesuits under fire”.


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Irish Vice-Province of the Society of Jesus, 1830- (1830-)

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Irish Vice-Province of the Society of Jesus, 1830-


O'Brien, Henry, 1907-1976, Jesuit priest

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Irish Jesuit Mission to Hong Kong, 1926-1966 (3 December 1926-3 December 1966)

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Irish Jesuit Mission to Hong Kong, 1926-1966


O'Brien, Henry, 1907-1976, Jesuit priest

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IE IJA J/312

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