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Sean O’Brien Marks 25 Years as a Friar

This is the sixth in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their anniversaries of profession. The fifth featured John O’Connor, OFM. The Province’s 2018 silver and golden jubilarians will be honored on June 21 at a special Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City.

LOUDONVILLE, N.Y. — Life sometimes comes full circle. Such was the case for Sean O’Brien, OFM. Although he never intended to take on a ministerial assignment in the Albany, N.Y., area, where he was born and raised, divine providence had other plans.

Initially, Sean admitted, the thought of returning home was not overly appealing. The community of Sacred Heart in Tampa, Fla., where he had been ministering for nine years, would be difficult to leave behind.

“Saying goodbye to a community that had become like family and returning to the winter chill of the Northeast wasn’t in my plans. But God often works in mysterious ways,” Sean said.

It is a truth he professes and preaches, and one that compelled him to say “yes” to a return to Loudonville in 2014, when he arrived that September at his new home of St. Bernardine of Siena Friary to serve as director of the Siena College mentoring program – a campus ministry that connects students with inner-city Albany youngsters age 6 to 17.

The solemn profession class of 1997. From left to right: Daniel McLellan, Russel Murray, Edward Higgins, Sean O’Brien, John Felice, Charles Miller and Christopher Coccia. (Photo courtesy of the Provincial Annals)

The mentoring program wasn’t foreign to Sean. Nine years earlier, while he was working on a feasibility study for an Albany area Nativity School, he helped Jim Snyder run the program’s summer camp. Snyder, who had started the program with his classmates 50 years earlier, was seeking to retire and phase himself out of the program. He tried that summer to convince Sean to step in as his replacement.

But Sean wasn’t ready at that time in his life. Nine years later, things were different. Returning to Loudonville – not far from St. Pius X, the parish and grammar school he attended – felt a little awkward.

His mother lay in a nearby nursing home slowly declining, and the Siena mentoring program was in need of a director because Snyder had passed away. Sean knew it was where he belonged. The torch was passed and the legacy of the mentoring program would continue.

Reflecting on his three years as director, Sean said, “It has been the best of times and the worst of times, with seasons of light and seasons of darkness. But, by far , it is one of the better things I’ve been a part of.”

Sean continued, “The youth who come to the Siena campus every Saturday are from some of the worst neighborhoods and family situations in the city of Albany. They are matched with Siena students who become like their big brothers and sisters.

“Every weekend they share a meal, and engage in various off campus activities like bowling, roller skating, apple picking or taking in the latest blockbuster movie,” Sean said. “These graced experiences allow for great relationships and memories to be formed and they help lives to be changed. The mentoring program is very much like a family. There is a connection and bonding that is quite remarkable.”

Although he admits a bias, Sean feels that Siena students in the program are “a cut above the rest,” noting that their commitment isn’t limited to just Saturday afternoons, as they stay connected to the youngsters throughout the week via social media and attend their games, birthday parties and school events.

“They have taught me what it means to be Franciscan,” Sean said.

Sean and the students in the mentoring program at Christmas last year. (Photo courtesy of Sean)

Path to Vocation
Sean had thoughts of the priesthood and religious life as a child, inspired by the faith of some neighbors and relatives. Although he attended Niagara University (instead of nearby Siena), he had experienced and appreciated the spirit and humor of the friars, who had a significant presence in the community because of the college.

Upon graduating from Niagara, Sean realized he wasn’t ready to make a lifetime commitment, so he worked for a legal service company and, later, at a law and tax book publishing firm.

One wintry weekend, while returning home from a ski trip with friends, Sean was involved in a serious automobile accident that almost took his life. His seven-month recovery from broken bones and a fractured skull gave Sean the opportunity to think about his life and explore what God was calling him to do with it.

“You realize you’re here for a visit. As tragic as it was – actually, more for my family than me – it was very much a wake-up call and a time of grace. The accident stirred things up,” said the silver jubilarian.

Shortly thereafter, Sean quit his job at the publishing company and moved to New York City’s Covenant House, an international childcare agency that serves homeless, runaway and at-risk youth. He lived within a faith-based community, made up of laypeople and religious, in the heart of Times Square (which he noted was far different from today’s cleaned-up version).

Living on a $12 weekly stipend, Sean shared a simple communal life with the other volunteers and participated in daily Mass and liturgy of the hours. He worked in the triage unit that screened many of the homeless youth who came to the shelter seeking refuge from life on the streets.

“It was quite intense,” Sean recalled, “but it was an unbelievably rich and very graced experience. It took me out of my small Albany bubble and allowed me to see and experience an entirely new and different world.”

It eventually led him to the steps of St. Francis of Assisi Church on 31st Street.

After serving at Covenant House for two years, Sean arrived in mid-July 1991 at Holy Cross Friary in the Bronx, where he began his affiliate, or postulant, year with the friars. He was received into the Franciscan Order on June 26, 1992 at St. Francis Novitiate in Brookline, Mass., where he professed his first vows in June 1993.

Sean (first row, left) and a group of affiliates at Holy Cross Friary in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1991. (Photo courtesy of Sean)

Six years later, Sean professed his solemn vows on Sept. 13, 1997 at St. Francis on 31st Street  where he was also ordained to the priesthood on May 16, 1998 by Bishop Howard Hubbard of the Albany Diocese, whom, Sean says,  he had admired for many years.  He received a master’s in divinity degree from Washington Theological Union in 1999.

The Community-Church-God Experience
Throughout his 25 years as a Franciscan, Sean says he has had the “fortune and honor” of living and ministering alongside many wonderful friars, adding that  he will always remember the friars who played a role in his formation.

“More than anything, they were great brothers who always had your best interests at heart,” Sean said. “When our world became grey and confusing as we grappled with life, academics, ministry and fraternity, they helped us to discern the hand of God and how it was calling us to make sense of it all. I am forever grateful for their fraternal wisdom and friendship.”

At Sean’s first Mass at his hometown parish of St. Pius X, Mychal Judge, OFM –– who just a few years later perished in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — preached the homily. They had become friends while Sean was a chaplain at Cabrini Hospital on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

“He would stop and talk to everyone. He had the gift of gab,” Sean said of Mychal and the long walks they would take through New York City streets. “He was quite a character – full of personality and a good man with a good heart. Michael would do anything for you.”

After ordination, Sean’s first assignment was at St. Mary’s Parish in Pompton Lakes, N.J., where he worked under pastor Michael Carnevale, OFM.

“He was larger than life. He could’ve been the mayor of Pompton Lakes,” Sean said of Michael. “He taught me what was really important when doing pastoral ministry. He has a very generous heart that reached more people than anyone could imagine.” .

Part of Sean’s current duties at Siena involves taking students on service trips sponsored by the Franciscan Center for Service and Advocacy, in which they engage in various projects in places like Nicaragua, Haiti and Jamaica. On a recent trip to Nicaragua, he reconnected with Joe Connelly, who was a teenager when Sean was a parish priest at St. Mary’s.

After Pompton Lakes, Sean went to North Carolina to be part of a start-up team for a new Jesuit-model Nativity school in Durham while living fraternally in the friary of Immaculate Conception. He said he was guided by the wisdom and friendship of David McBriar, OFM.

“The school days were long and sometimes challenging, but every minute was worthwhile,” he said, noting that he continues to correspond with one of his former students who is now incarcerated.

George Corrigan, Sean, Andrew Reitz, and Juan Turcios enjoy the sun on the steps of Sacred Heart Parish in Tampa. (Photo courtesy of Sean)

The Best ‘Yes’ Ever
In 2005, Sean received a call from his former novice master, Andrew Reitz, OFM, who asked him to be part of a team of friars at a new venture in Tampa – Sacred Heart Parish, formerly run by the Jesuits.

“It was the best ‘yes’ I ever said. Andrew had a great vision of parish life and a keen ability to engage the people and invite them to be participants in the Church community,” Sean said. “This style was new to the people, but parishioners were attracted to the openness and spirit of the friars – and soon, the parish was bursting at the seams.”

Sean loved the diversity of parish ministry and being involved in the lives of parishioners.

“It was a hospitable parish that attracted a variety of people, some of whom had been away from the Church for a while,” Sean said. “There was a place for everyone and it was exciting to be part of a community that was alive and had much potential for growth. No two days were ever the same.”

The days were rewarding for Sean – whether he was teaching 8th grade religion, anointing a dying parent in a hospital emergency room, welcoming someone in the confessional who had been away from the Church, or driving a homeless person to the Veteran’s Administration hospital for an appointment.

“It was a great experience being part of God’s grace in some very rich and special ways,” he said.

The strength of the parish was complimented by a cohesive fraternity of friars that included, in addition to Andrew, George Corrigan, OFM, and Juan de la Cruz Turcios, OFM, with whom he shared many laughs and memorable experiences — which, to Sean, reflects Franciscan life and ministry at its best.

Sean admits that nothing in life ever stays the same. As he concludes his fourth year at Siena, he looks back with no regrets and feels open to what might be ahead. He is forever grateful for the gift of his Franciscan vocation and the continued friendship and fraternal love he has received from his brother friars and the Franciscan family.

Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y.

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