Catholic students, ‘Steer Clear Deer’ is a national winner

By Monica Walton
JACKSON – This wasn’t your typical middle school class project, nor what it a typical summer for Neel Boteler, Lily Frances Garner, Benjamin Manhein and Maley Thornhill. These four St. Richard School students spent their time engaging in creative, critical thinking, and lots of hard work — and it paid off big time! After winning the local, state and regional levels, they completed their sixth grade year with a trip to Washington DC, and earned first place in the nation at the 20th annual eCyberMission Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) Competition sponsored by the US Army. More than 8,400 students registered to compete in the event, and our local students took home top honors in their division with a device to help reduce deer-related vehicle collisions. “Our team put in a lot of prep time,” said Maley Thornhill. “I didn’t realize it was going to take so much work, but at nationals it paid off!”

This was an experience unlike any other for these students. “We felt like kings!” said Neel Boteler. All agreed it was most definitely worth the hard work, and they felt proud to represent our state so well. “Hearing our name called was amazing,” said Lily Frances Garner. “We couldn’t believe our Mississippi team actually brought home the title for the first time. We showed that Mississippi kids are smart, too. It was awesome!”

WASHINGTON – Graduating sixth grade students at St. Richard stop for a shot with their award winning project “Steer Clear Deer” at the 20th annual eCyberMission STEM competition in July. Pictured left to right, Maley Thornhill, Ben Manhein, Neel Boteler and Lily Frances Garner. (Photo courtesy of St. Richard School)

Benjamin Manhein recalled the many hours of research and sorting through all their findings to determine what information would be most helpful to the project. “It was a good feeling when we knew we had what we needed and could begin building the Steer Clear Device,” he said.

The STEM competition invites students in grades six through nine across America to develop a “mission challenge” for their local communities and present a four-minute oral presentation followed by a question and answer session. The panel of judges consisted of U.S. Army scientists and engineers who work at Army laboratories and centers across the country. Ultimately, the goal is to foster student interest in a STEM career thus “cultivating an enduring, high-caliber workforce to provide tomorrow’s soldiers with the capabilities they need to protect our national interests across the globe.”

The St. Richard team named, “Oh Deer!” decided to take on the challenge of a common Mississippi problem – deer-related vehicle accidents. Their project was inspired by personal experience when one teammate’s father was involved in a deer collision causing extensive damage to his car. The team wanted to develop something that would deter deer without harming them and prevent them from running out into oncoming traffic potentially saving countless lives and thousands of dollars in vehicle damage. As they began their research, they discovered that current devices on the market aren’t very effective. They learned that deer can hear at higher pitches than humans, and while deer can see ultraviolet light, they do not see well above eye level. The resulting invention is “Steer Clear Deer” — a device that can be attached to a vehicle or placed on the roadside. It uses light and sound with changing patterns in ranges deer can see and hear, but humans cannot. Field testing and trials using those two deer senses showed great success in deterring deer with the least amount of risk to humans. “Don’t be surprised if you see ‘Steer Deer Clear’ on the shelves one day!” said Jennifer David, St. Richard School principal.

Team “Oh, Deer” brought home much more than a national title, though. Each team member received US Series EE Savings Bonds worth $10,000 at maturity, and they have new friends and great memories to treasure. While in Washington DC for the finals, the students participated in several activities including a Department of Defense Career Workshop Day, working in Army labs, learning about weapons systems, touring the National Zoo and several national monuments, and a showcase event highlighting all the student projects. “I learned more about the Army and how they do more than fight battles,” said Thornhill. “The activities showed us they also use science, technology and math to help our country in other ways.”

The weeklong event was also a unique opportunity to get to know the other students and advisors from around the country. They fostered new friendships and plan to stay in touch with some of them. “The future is very bright,” said advisor Ashley Klein. “I watched the kids grow, particularly in how they presented themselves. They were poised and confident and worked together beautifully. It was great seeing the amazing projects these kids undertook.” The seventh grade winning team from Texas featured the use of marine and freshwater algae as bioaccumulators of microplastics; the eighth grade winners from Illinois studied the impact of different soil additives on increasing the magnesium content in food crops, and determined a cost-effective and eco-friendly solution; and the ninth grade first place team from New Jersey determined the necessary components of a smart beehive system to optimize colony health.

During the awards ceremony, Maj. Gen. Brown, commanding general of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, inspired the students with these words, “Lots of careers can be exciting, many careers can be rewarding — financially and personally. But a smaller number of careers give you the chance to do something meaningful. To launch a first of its kind product, secure a patent or produce something that changes our way of life for the better is meaningful. Supporting our mutual defense and doing something that brings a soldier home alive is meaningful in a way that few other things are.”

The students were indeed inspired and feel this experience has opened up more opportunities for their future. Lily Frances Garner said it makes her feel like she can do anything she puts her mind to, including succeeding in high school. She is even considering the possibility of pursuing a STEM career like Engineering.

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.)