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Fr. Cornelius O’Brien dies at 87

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Father Cornelius O’Brien, former pastor of St. James Church in Falls Church, died in Ireland Sept. 7 at age 87.

Known for fishing and quoting Shakespeare and St. Thomas Aquinas, Father O’Brien was born Jan. 16, 1932, in Goulanes, Bantry, County Cork, Ireland. He attended St. Patrick Seminary in Carlow, Ireland, and was ordained by Bishop Thomas Keogh June 5, 1955. He was a priest in the Diocese of Alexandria, La., before being invited by Bishop Thomas J. Welsh in 1975 to the Diocese of Arlington.

He taught metaphysics and history of philosophy at the Association of Seminaries in Washington. Father O'Brien presented lectures on a variety of topics, including St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae and the cardinal virtues. He was co-founder of the CREDO.

He served as parochial vicar at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington (1975-79), assistant director of the Notre Dame Institute (1976-1979), parochial vicar at St. Agnes Church in Arlington (1979-80), associate pastor of St. Lawrence Church in Alexandria (1980-83), pastor of St. Timothy Church in Chantilly (1983-99), and pastor of St. James (1999-2006). Following his retirement, he returned to his home in Cork County, Ireland.

While pastor at St. James, Father O’Brien installed a 6-foot bronze statue of St. James on the parish grounds.

Father O’Brien became the first chaplain at Christendom College in Front Royal in 1977 and served in that capacity for 25 years.

"His Monday homilies at the 11:30 a.m. community Mass were, for many, the highlight of the week. He assisted the community during the early years as confessor and spiritual director," said Christendom President Timothy O'Donnell. "His brilliance and deep love for Christ and his Church had a profound impact upon many students and the college as a whole until his retirement to his beloved Ireland. May Our Blessed Lord receive his soul and grant him peace.”

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Great Falls, described Father O’Brien as an “elder statesman of the diocese, a man of orthodoxy and love for his church, and a love for the sacred language of the Mass.”

Father James R. Gould, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Warrenton, said as a youngster, Father O’Brien was as a leatherworker and made the shoes for the family as a kid. “He also had carpenter skills and he was incredibly bright and articulate,” said Father Gould. “Father O’Brien was a master homilist and retreat leader. He knew his scriptures and his life was built around the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas.”

Father Gould said when he’d send seminarians to Father O’Brien, Father O’Brien taught many of them how to fly fish.

Father O’Brien’s funeral Mass was offered at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Kealkill, County Cork Sept. 10. He was interred at Kilmacomogue Cemetery in Bantry.

Father Christopher J. Mould, pastor of St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Clifton, attended the Mass and read a letter from Bishop Michael F. Burbidge.

Father Mould described the scene from the wake service and said around 1,000 people attended the wake where the receiving room was about 14x14 at most.

“The family sat on only benches along the wall, and Father O’Brien was laid out in a simple wooden casket,” he said. “When people would join at the side of the casket, they would make the sign of the cross with a tap to the forehead and three taps to the heart. Very Irish. The men placed the casket on their shoulders and carried it up a rather steep hill, changing off with others several times along the way.”   

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019