Beloved priest celebrates milestone, bids farewell for now

By Monica Walton
CANTON – The final chapter as a full-time pastor came to a close where the first chapter began.

On June 20, 2022, on the occasion of his 50th Ordination Anniversary and retirement, Father Mike O’Brien came full circle, celebrating one of his last Masses as pastor in the very same parish where he had his first experience as pastor of any church. He was only 35 years old when he first moved to Sacred Heart in Canton in 1983. How fitting that this be the location of his final assignment in the Magnolia State.

Father Mike O’Brien pictured in Feb. 1976.

“I’ve had a wonderful life,” Father Mike reflected during his homily. “I love being a priest, and I’m very blessed to have these two worlds: Mississippi, I love ya’ll (he drawled)… and Ireland, I love my Ireland.” As he recaptured highlights of the many memories he lived during his childhood and priesthood, he noted that this was the longest sermon he’d given in all his 50 years. But he made certain to proclaim this truth, “I always knew God was with me, especially in the hard times of our Starkville church burning, Hurricane Katrina and the ICE raids.”

The beautiful, little church on Center Street was filled to the brim with the faithful from the many parishes and cities where Father Mike has served. Several who came to honor him had to watch the Mass on monitors in the Parish Center due to lack of seating, but they didn’t mind. They were simply happy to be there to bid farewell to this priest who had touched their lives in such a special way.

The evening was a beautiful blending of cultures — just as the church is meant to be — with the readings, songs, and food representing English, Spanish and, of course, Irish flair. Fifteen members of Father Mike’s family made the trip from Ireland to Mississippi for this incredibly special occasion. Four generations were represented with the youngest of the clan being present, his great niece, Aoivhinn, only 2 1/2 years old. “We just couldn’t miss it,” said Paul Hickey, nephew of Father Mike. “Michael always came for us. He came back to Ireland for holiday, and for our special celebrations.”

Local parishioners as well as members of Father Mike’s family took part in the Mass. The First Reading was proclaimed by the eldest in the family, Sister Margaret O’Brien, a Sister of Mercy and biological sister to Mike. Nieces Roisin O’Brien and Ciara Todd each read a prayer petition.

Father Mike’s younger brother, Tom, who bears strikingly close resemblance, spoke on behalf of the family at his big brother’s ordination reception although he was only a teenager when Father Mike was ordained. Tom once again delivered a reflection for the family at the end of Father Mike’s 50th Anniversary Mass. “When Bishop Brunini visited our home, we were proud, but a bit apprehensive,” Tom said. “Afterall, our brother was going to a place he couldn’t even spell! But our fears and reservations disappeared quickly. Mom and Dad visited Mike in Mississippi first, then all us siblings made trips. We brought our kids, and our kids brought their kids.” Tom closed with these final thoughts on his older brother, “First and foremost, he is a decent man. We are very, very proud of him.” When speaking of how thrilled the family is that he is going home to begin his retirement, Tom added, “But, we take note that he hasn’t sold his car!”

CANTON – Father Mike O’Brien is pictured at a Mass of Thanksgiving for his 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood on Monday, June 20.

More than 40 priests from throughout the state of Mississippi were in attendance, along with Bishop Joseph Kopacz. They led a moving, prayerful, a capella singing of “Salve Regina” just before the whole place joined in the recessional hymn, “This Little Light of Mine,” in honor of the light of Christ evident in Father Mike.

It was a night filled with immense joy, a living testimony to the effect Father Mike has had on this community. “I was so humbled and inspired by the awesome celebration,” Father Mike said. “I enjoyed it and appreciated everything so much.”

But how did this Irishman, born in Roscommon and ordained in Kilbegnet, wind up in Jackson, Mississippi? “It was the Holy Spirit,” he says. “I knew I wanted an adventure. I wanted to go away somewhere to be a priest, someplace like China or Sudan. My cousin was going to be a priest in Mississippi. I knew it was a river, but he said, ‘It’s also a state!’ So, I asked him, ‘Do they speak English there?’ He answered, ‘Well, sort of. …’” The church filled with laughter, as happened many times while Father Mike recounted stories of growing up with seven siblings, his deep love of family clearly shown.

His sister, Assumpta, said their Mom was worried about Mike going so far away because he was so young and didn’t even know not to wear white socks. “It was difficult in the beginning, but then as we heard about the wonderful local people, Mom knew he had a family here.” Assumpta recalled a few memories of her first visit to Mississippi. “We were thrilled with so many new things. I remember Mike had a waffle maker, and we had never seen one before!”

Sacred Heart parish was filled to the brim with the faithful from the many parishes and cities where Father Mike O’Brien served over his 50 years as a priest. (Photos by Berta Mexidor)

Father Mike credited Father Sam Messina with naming the reality that priests have three families – their birth family, their parish family and their family of brother priests. That is why the decision to return to Ireland upon retirement was not an easy one to make. Father Mike left his family and home at the young age of 24 to serve and has lived in Mississippi for 50 years. Father Mike said he has had mixed emotions about leaving, going back and forth over where to spend his retirement years. He had finally decided to stay in Mississippi when his sister, Marie, called with a creative proposition. “Marie said, ‘Why not come (back to Ireland) for just one year?’ and I thought that was a good idea.” said Father Mike.

Assumpta said their parents would be so thrilled that he is returning home to Ireland. “He will be a center for us all,” she said. That seems to be the effect he has on everyone in his midst. “Father Mike has been a great priests’ priest, as well as a great servant to the people,” said his close friend, Father Gerry Hurley, who also hails from Ireland. “Fellow priests could always look to Mike for encouragement, direction and assistance. He is a classic representation of all the good things of Ireland, and the hopes of the seminary that sent him.”

Ten days after the joyous 50th Anniversary celebration in the packed house of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Father Mike O’Brien celebrated his final Mass there as pastor. He bid a bittersweet “slán agat” (goodbye) to his Beloved Mississippi, but with the assurance that he will be back! “I am open,” he said. “I’m not saying that I’m going to Ireland forever.”

This faithful, humble priest with a most gentle heart and endearing smile will be greatly missed. Go with our sincere prayers, love, and blessings, Father Mike!

Padre Mike se jubila después de 50 años

Por Mónica Walton

JACKSON – El pasado 20 de junio, con motivo de su 50 aniversario de ordenación y jubilación, el padre Mike O’Brien cerró el círculo y celebró su última Misa como párroco en la misma parroquia donde comenzó.

Tenía solo 35 años cuando se mudó por primera vez a Sacred Heart en Canton en 1983. Qué apropiado que ésta sea la ubicación de su asignación final en Magnolia State.

“He tenido una vida maravillosa”, reflexionó el padre Mike durante su homilía. “Me encanta ser sacerdote y estoy muy bendecido de tener estos dos mundos: Mississippi e Irlanda.” Mientras recapturó los aspectos más destacados de los muchos recuerdos que vivió durante su infancia y sacerdocio, señaló que este fue el sermón más largo que había dado en todos sus 50 años. Pero se aseguró de proclamar esta verdad: “Siempre supe que Dios estaba conmigo, especialmente en los tiempos difíciles, desde el incendio de nuestra iglesia en Starkville, el huracán Katrina y las redadas de ICE”.

Pero, ¿cómo este irlandés, nacido en Roscommon y ordenado en Kilbegnet, terminó en Jackson, Mississippi? “Fue el Espíritu Santo”, dice. “Sabía que quería una aventura. Mi primo iba a ser sacerdote en Mississippi. Sabía que era un río, pero él dijo: ‘¡También es un estado!’ Entonces, le pregunté: ‘¿Hablan inglés allí?’. Él respondió: ‘Bueno, algo así…'”

CANTON – La Misa de retiro del Padre Mike O’Brien fue celebrada el lunes 20 de junio, concelebrada por el Padre Gerry Hurley párroco de St. Paul Flowood y asistidos por el diácono John Mc Gregor, en la que estuvo acompañado por el obispo Joseph Kopacz, miembros de su familia provenientes de Irlanda y un centenar de parroquianos en celebración multicultural, quienes llegaron a dar muestras de gracias y despedida (Fotos de Berta Mexidor)

La pequeña iglesia se llenó de risas, repleta de fieles de las muchas parroquias y ciudades donde el Padre Mike ha servido. Varios de los que vinieron a honrarlo tuvieron que ver la Misa en monitores en el Centro Parroquial por falta de asientos, pero no les importó. Estaban felices de estar allí para despedir a este sacerdote que había tocado sus vidas de una manera tan especial.

La velada fue una hermosa mezcla de culturas, tal como debe ser la iglesia, con lecturas, canciones y comida que representaban el estilo inglés, español y, por supuesto, irlandés. Quince miembros de la familia del padre Mike viajaron de Irlanda a Mississippi para esta ocasión tan especial. “El padre Mike ha sido un gran sacerdote de sacerdotes, así como un gran servidor para la gente”, dijo su amigo cercano, el padre Gerry Hurley, quien también es oriundo de Irlanda. “Los compañeros sacerdotes siempre pueden buscar a Mike en busca de aliento, dirección y asistencia. Es una representación clásica de todas las cosas buenas de Irlanda y las esperanzas del seminario que lo envió”.

El padre Mike O’Brien dedicó un agridulce “slán agat” (adiós) a su Amado Mississippi, ¡pero con la seguridad de que volverá! Echaremos mucho de menos a este sacerdote fiel y humilde con un corazón muy tierno y una sonrisa entrañable. ¡Vaya con nuestras oraciones sinceras, amor y bendiciones, Padre Mike!

(Mónica Walton nació y se crio en Luisiana, ama su herencia cajún y sus LSU Tigers. Tiene una licenciatura en Periodismo/LSU. Ha trabajado en medios impresos, televisión & radio en Luisiana, Georgia y Mississippi. Mónica vive en Brandon desde 1993 y tiene cuatro hijos.)