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.
“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!”
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!”
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!