Jesuit Father Gerard O’Brien passed away on August 24, 2015, in Weston, Massachusetts. Fr. O’Brien was born in Stoneham, Massachusetts, on October 29, 1928, but his family lived on the west side of Malden and he was brought up there, in the Immaculate Conception Parish, with a younger sister and brother, Virginia and Tom. His father was descended from 19th-century Irish immigrants, his mother from a French Canadian/Irish family on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Like many local families, his parents had a difficult time economically during the Depression and prosperity only came with World War II, when his father worked in the Boston Navy Yard.
Fr. O’Brien attended local parish grammar and high schools. Graduating in 1945, he just missed military service and entered the College of the Holy Cross in September of that year. Studying the classics course and already thinking about the priesthood, he talked regularly with a Jesuit, Fr. Larry Foran, who encouraged him to try the novitiate. In 1946, the summer after his first year of college, he entered Shadowbrook.
He did not find the novitiate easy. “I kept wondering when the magical day was going to come when I would start liking it,” he later said, with the honesty that was a lifelong characteristic. But he worked at it with determination and after a while became quite happy. “I developed a real enthusiasm for following Christ in my life in whatever he wanted me to do.” Juniorate studies were a delight and had a permanent influence, he said, on his later homilies and retreats.
He had the good fortune to arrive at Weston for philosophy studies in 1950, when younger faculty members like Reggie O’Neill were just beginning efforts to break away from the manual approach of the veteran faculty, and he developed a love for the subject. He spent three years of regency (1953-1956) teaching Greek, Latin and English at the old Boston College High, then was sent to Woodstock for theology studies and was ordained a priest there in 1959. Tertianship followed, a year later, at Pomfret, in Connecticut.
He was 30 years old and his love for philosophy had been rekindled while reviewing for his ad grad exam at the end of theology studies. Superiors, though, were reluctant to send him directly to doctoral studies and assigned him instead to Boston College to teach philosophy. He loved the challenge of making abstruse concepts intelligible to undergraduates and found himself rethinking many of the things he had learned. After two years at B.C. he asked again to go to doctoral studies, was approved, and began work at Fordham in 1963. He settled in and found his studies agreeable but ran into trouble focusing on a thesis topic, eventually settling, with the help of Fr. Robert O’Connell, on the early works of Augustine.
He returned to BC, finished his Fordham dissertation and continued to teach philosophy at BC until he retired from the classroom in 2012. He also devoted a major part of his time to alcoholism counseling, twelve-step programs, retreats and being a resource for innumerable Jesuits and lay colleagues who sought help in dealing with their own problems and those of family and friends. He became a trustee of Guest House, took on leadership roles in groups within the Society and the Church that advocated for effective and compassionate treatment of those struggling with alcoholism, helping to implement the New England Province’s 1970 policy on alcoholism and educate superiors and communities about its value.
In 2012, Fr. O’Brien moved to Campion Center in Weston. He continued his counseling work and even shortly before his death traveled to give retreats. In the early morning of August 24, 2015, he died peacefully in his sleep.