The prayers of the members of the Congregation of Holy Cross are requested for the repose of the soul of Brother Richard O’Brien, CSC, a member of the Moreau Province of Brothers and Priests. Born in Auburn, New York, Br. Richard died in Valatie, New York on March 13, 2015. He was in his 66th year as a professed religious in the Congregation.
Born on October 17, 1928 in Auburn, NY to John A. O’Brien, a salesman, and Kathleen Carrol O’Brien, Richard was the oldest of their three sons. He was baptized Richard Carrol Anthony O’Brien in St. Mary’s Church on November 11, 1928 in Auburn. When the family moved to Pittsburgh, PA in 1938, he attended St. Bernard School for four years. He finished his elementary education at Cathedral Academy, Syracuse, NY in 1942, and his secondary education there in 1948.
Prior to his entrance into the Congregation, Richard held a variety of jobs in the Syracuse area, including working as a soda fountain attendant in the Corner Book Store, an office boy at Clark Music Company, and finally as a salesperson for the Students Supply Company.
Reading books about the lives of St. Brother André Bessette, CSC, and St. Francis of Assisi stirred Richard’s interest in religious life. He was admitted to the postulancy program at Holy Cross Juniorate in North Dartmouth, MA on August 1, 1948. Received into Our Lady of Holy Cross Novitiate in North Dartmouth on February 1, 1949, he made his first profession of vows as a Brother on March 10, 1950. Soon after, he transferred to the Brothers’ province. Brother Richard made his final profession of vows on August 16, 1953.
Following first profession in summer of 1950, he journeyed to the University of Notre Dame to begin his academic preparation for ministry. He went to St. Edward’s University the following year to continue working on a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in History, but his studies were interrupted several times by teaching assignments to the Holy Cross elementary schools of St. Francis in Brooklyn, NY and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Bronx. Br. Richard returned to St. Edward’s University in fall of 1956 and completed his B.A. degree in June of 1957. Then, after a one year assignment at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Brooklyn, NY, Brother Richard served nine years at Msgr. James Coyle High School in Taunton, MA, where he was moderator of the yearbook, The Viking. His expertise as yearbook moderator continued in other schools in the years to come. For ten years, he taught at Cardinal Mooney High School in Rochester, NY. Br. Richard then taught at Bishop McNamara High School, in Forestville, MD and at Holy Cross High School, Flushing, NY. In 1981, he began graduate studies at Fordham University and obtained his M.A. in Religious Education in June of 1983. Br. Richard then returned to Bishop McNamara High School and taught History and Religious Studies.
In 1986, he decided to make a major shift, exchanging the familiar roles of living in a large community of Brothers and teaching in the classroom, with living in a rectory and serving in parish ministry. He became the Pastoral Associate at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Brooklyn and served there until 2005. Br. Richard delighted in this assignment because of his responsibility for a variety of activities and services at the church. He especially liked the proximity to the subway and the easy access it provided to all of Manhattan. He became well-known on a personal level to many of the parishioners because of his visits to the sick and his comforting presence to families at times of loss. He would later state how well he was accepted as a parish minister because he was a Brother of Holy Cross.
Br. Richard’s students will always remember his quiet manner. He was always the ‘gentleman’; carefully dressed, often with a nice cardigan sweater, and always with his pipe. At the time of his retirement from the parish, he and his pipe collection moved to Holy Cross High School, Flushing. He enjoyed smoking his pipe on the outdoor balcony of the fourth floor residence with a view of the neighborhood from high above.
He was well-suited to teaching History and Government; he had a command of facts and in his first years of retirement would read the paper daily and keep up with current events. While in the parish, the dinner table conversation was often engaging and varied because of Br. Richard’s intellect and ability to converse on almost any topic.
With mounting health issues related to aging, he retired to St. Joseph Center in Valatie, NY in fall of 2009. Two days before his death, Br. Richard was visited by a number of the Brothers. There was no major concern about his health and, in the course of the visit, he received the Anointing of the Sick. The graces of that sacrament may have been what Richard, or the Lord, had been waiting for. We are grateful that the Lord and Brother Andre led Richard to Holy Cross. May God grant him eternal rest.
– Bro. William Zaydak, CSC
Good afternoon Brothers of Holy Cross. I am Richard’s first cousin, Mary Ann Haggerty. Richard’s family, his brother John and his wife Carol, his brother Dennis and his wife Pat, are not able to be with us due to illness, so let us remember them in prayer. Also present with us today is Tom Guyette & his wife Patricia. Tom was with Richard both in Rochester and Flushing.
Growing up, our families were not close. Richard’s mother and my father were brother and sister, but Richard’s early years were lived in Pittsburgh while I lived in Auburn, NY. Traveling was not easy in the 1940’s, so we got together very rarely.
When Richard spoke to his mom about entering the Holy Cross Brothers, she immediately called my dad who worked in a men’s clothing store. She asked him if he could get Richard a black suit so he could enter. My dad didn’t hesitate and got Richard his suit and off he went. Richard never forgot that and fostered a deep love for my dad. I will never forget that love.
It was when I entered the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Rochester that Richard and I became close. He and his mom attended my reception of the religious habit. When he was stationed at Cardinal Mooney, believe it or not, my husband to be (Brother Hugh) used to drive him over to St. Thomas More Convent to visit me on Sunday afternoons! Maybe Richard wouldn’t agree, but both Hugh and I know that it was Richard who brought us together when we left religious life. I vividly remember when Hugh’s dad died, some of the Brothers from Holy Cross came to the wake, Richard among them. When he saw me with Hugh’s family, you should have seen the expression on his face! He knew then that we were dating!
As Hugh reminisced on Richard’s years at Cardinal Mooney, he reminded me of his love for history, photography, and of course smoking his pipe! I think you all know that when you saw Richard, you saw his pipe! And I have a picture of my dad that Richard took that I treasure to this day! In his later years, when he was stationed in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and at Holy Cross in Flushing, he loved going into Manhattan to walk the streets, walking being another of his addictions in addition to his pipe. While walking, he was also looking for sales on sport shirts! Both Hugh and I remember visiting him and seeing shirt upon shirt still with the price tags on them piled high on a chair. They had never been worn. I think if they fit Hugh he would have taken a few!
Throughout our married life, Hugh and I used to visit Richard or meet him in Manhattan for lunch. I never lost touch with Richard. When we first moved to Florida, Richard came to visit us for our first Thanksgiving. We visited him here in Valatie and at Barnwell Nursing Home.
I always told myself that I would be at Richard’s Funeral Mass to celebrate his life and share with you what a special person Brother Richard was. I thank you for letting me tell you that he was a great cousin whom I loved dearly. I also feel and believe that he was a loyal and faithful member of Holy Cross for over 65 years! God love him and God love and bless you all.
– Mary Ann Haggerty
“We are impatient,
anxious to see the whole picture,
But God lets us see things slowly, quietly.
The Church has to learn to wait.”
These lines by Pope Francis are the ones that come to mind as I try to gather ideas and words about Richard O’Brien. Although I lived with him for years in New York, and stood by him in some pretty dramatic changes in his life, I know that the complete picture of Richard O’Brien is only going to come slowly into focus, probably as I encounter my own aging challenges. He made it through a very tough aging.
I barely knew who Rich was until I moved him in with us in Flushing. It took a few trips in the van to move his “collection” to the roof. After he got there, Rich would walk around the house, looking out the windows and muttering “Desolate! It’s just desolate out there!” while shaking his head. He had become so used to standing on the street corner in busy Greenpoint, Brooklyn, puffing on his beloved pipe, talking to parishioners and passersby, hopping the subway just one stop to midtown. He loved, loved The City. In his disappointed eyes, Flushing was similar to Valatie. No one stood on street corners and talked – street corners in Queens were for flower boxes and catching buses.
Rich was a collector of clothing bargains, who amassed an extraordinary number of high quality fashions on a shoestring budget by making patient trips into Macy’s, searching through the bargain basement racks there, waiting until something he had his eye on went down to say, two dollars. On those days, I’d see him coming home with new bags with the telltale big red star.
On days when he didn’t head into Manhattan, he’d stroll down the hall on his long legs to press a set of trousers, make a cup of black coffee, and read through the religious papers or look through his beloved National Catholic Directory for the number of nun’s orders in St. Louis or some other fact that caught his fancy. He’d report those things at supper, and we’d never know what to say.
Gradually Richard told me things about himself: his early days in Syracuse and Pittsburgh, working as an office boy or as a soda fountain attendant at the Corner Book Store at Syracuse University, things about his younger brothers John and Dennis and their families, his early days of ministry in Holy Cross. I found out that he had originally entered Holy Cross to be in the Priest Society, but after observing his interest in social studies topics and being impressed with his “Mr. Chips-like” figure – his pipe and sweaters – his formators advised him to switch to the Brothers Society, since he was obviously cut out to be a teacher.
He didn’t do too well in teaching, wasn’t able to track all the testing and grade-point averaging for the number of students he was expected to cover… But, as Ed Boyer pointed out the other day, Rich became a specialist at yearbooks, doing them year after year. Now this was in the days before digital film, before computer layouts, when you had to work with large blue grid paper for hours and hours….
As so many who worked or lived with Rich sensed, there was something immensely likable about him. After his time in Rochester, kids inquired about religious life. For instance, one of his students, Peggy Staub, entered the Trappistines, citing Rich as her inspiration. Peggy died of cancer as a young woman, but he always spoke of her and called her “The Gipper” in stories ever afterward. What did she see in Rich? It wasn’t a great teacher. It was a gentle character, a hospitable man, a brother to others.
After a number of misadventures, Rich finally hit his stride when the Provincial encouraged him to try working as a pastoral associate at St Anthony/St. Alphonsus Parish in Brooklyn. His friendly, engaging character endeared him to the pastor, and they struck up a close friendship. Rich settled in to St. Anthony’s Rectory for the next twenty years, eventually occupying several rooms on the top floor. He wore a collar and helped out Fr. Jack at funerals by riding to the cemetery with the family after the service, and blessing the gravesite, leading the final prayers. In his free time – which apparently was plentiful! – he shopped, read the papers, or hung out on the front step, constantly relighting his pipe and talking to anyone who passed by.
Peggy, and other students who were impressed by him, like many of us, saw in Rich a person who could be with people, the real people, like those he spoke to on the streets of Brooklyn for twenty years: the poor, the very poor, the people barely getting by, the people who can’t keep their heads above water very much longer. Polish women carrying groceries, and immigrants of all sorts, undocumented and otherwise. The unemployed and the underemployed. Single parents doing heroic work, and tired from being up all night. Saying the prayers of burial for parish funerals, he saw widows and widowers. The racial and ethnic ‘other.’ Social minorities. The very young and the lonely old. College students far from home. The disabled.
Rich could look at all those people and see them as folks beloved of God. He could do this because he himself was broken in some areas of his life. He was a deeply anxious man. But he could look at others in friendliness and offer them his smile.
So those are my cues to understanding Rich. He drew close to people by simply sharing their stories, their humanity. He was delighted to be an official part of a Church that welcomed them all.
For helping us understand Rich from the family’s perspective, I would like to thank Mary Ann Carroll Haggerty, Rich’s cousin.
I am also grateful to Rich’s other relatives who could be here with us to honor him. And I’d like to thank Tom and Pat Guyette, and our brother Edward O’Connell, for coming to help us celebrate Richard’s life today.
On behalf of the community, many thanks too to Bro. Richard’s care providers here at the Center and during his months in Barnwell.
Most of all – on behalf of all of us – I’d like to thank Rich himself. Thank you, Brother Richard O’Brien, for being your vulnerable, imperfect self and asking to belong to us, for loving Notre Dame and all things Irish and Catholic, for being a sign, like grass which sprouts through Brooklyn’s asphalt, that God is not about perfection, but about a friendly heart.
Rest in His peace.
– Bro. Mark Knightly, CSC
St. Joseph’s Center, Valatie, New York
Tuesday, March 17, 2015