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Fr. John O’Hara: Inspired to live simply as a ‘servant of the church’

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After decades of service to the diocese and many ministries, Father John T. O'Hara is retiring. He reflects on his years of service in an interview with the Catholic Herald.

Father John T. O’Hara always wanted to help people, whether that involved offering spiritual advice or finding someone an old used car. “Helping people is something I learned in my family, from my parents,” said Father O’Hara, who has fond memories of growing up in the 1950s in the shadow of St. James Church in Falls Church, inspired by two uncles who were priests.

Ordained in 1980, he served at parishes across the diocese, and was director of Catholic Charities for 10 years, before a life-changing stint at the diocesan mission in Bánica, Dominican Republic.

He always tried to live simply (and still drives an 18-year-old car), but Father O’Hara said he never really thought about doing mission work until he left Catholic Charities in 1998 and wondered where God was calling him next.

“I want to thank Bishop (Emeritus Paul) Loverde for that. He said ‘Jack, why don’t you go down to Bánica and see if you would like to work there.’ I went down, and it was a beautiful place, a holy place.”

One of the highlights of his four years there was mentoring a disabled teen called Junior, whose single mother brought him across the border from Haiti to get medical care after Junior fell from a mango tree and became paralyzed. “That poor kid was carried on a mattress across a river,” Father O’Hara said, but today he has become a hospital administrator and law school graduate who helps other disabled people in his country. They still keep in touch and Father O’Hara said he is moved by Junior’s deep faith and fortitude. “He’s a gift from God to me,” he said.  

Serving in Bánica also allowed Father O’Hara to become fluent in Spanish, which has been so integral to his ministry in Northern Virginia. “I am so grateful for that and have continued to use it,” both at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington (2004-10) and at Holy Family Church in Dale City, where more than 60 percent of the parishioners are Latinos. He has been parochial vicar there the past 10 years. 

He earlier served as parochial vicar at St. Louis and Saint Rita churches in Alexandria and as pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes in Arlington. He earned bachelor’s degrees in government, politics and history from George Mason University in Fairfax. He studied theology at Washington Theological Union, earning a master of divinity in 1982 and did graduate studies from 1988-90 at The Catholic University of America in Washington while at Catholic Charities. 

Father O’Hara calls his years as a priest a privilege and “a gift from God,” and expresses “wonder and gratitude at the goodness of the people of God.” He also said he is grateful for the deep friendships he’s made and those who have supported him, including the late Father Gerry Creedon and all the bishops he’s served under, who “gave me a father’s care.”

After his retirement, he plans to take a few months to rest, then “ease back in at a slower pace, and continue to serve the Lord and his people as a witness to the kingdom.” He’ll continue on the diocesan Peace and Justice Commission and other ministries he’s been involved in, and will help out at parishes, especially in the Spanish-speaking community. “To this day, I still love doing what I do as much as I did 40 years ago,” he said.

 “We should be close to the people we serve,” he added, citing the example of Pope Francis. “We’re the servants of the church.” 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020