The Father Father
Paul O’Brien’s tough ministry in Lawrence, Massachusetts
Not long ago, while reading late in the St. Patrick parish rectory, Father Paul O’Brien ’86 heard gunshots and smelled smoke—not for the first time on the south side of Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Once the golden model of an American industrial city, Lawrence is now among the poorest places in the nation: average per capita income is $16,000; one-third of families live below the poverty line. Unemployment is high, school test scores are low, and crime flourishes. “Only one of every three kids here is born to a mother who is married,” O’Brien reports. “In many cases, we are dealing with kids, sometimes as young as seven and eight, banding together in groups and basically raising themselves. They decide if they are going to school that day. And they figure out together where they are getting their clothing, their food, pencils, and books. That’s the culture from which urban gangs are developing.”
Yet functional families of all races and ethnicities also live around the church, where about 5,000 people come to worship at one or more of the 17 weekly masses. Many are Hispanic or Vietnamese by origin (there is a Sunday mass in Vietnamese). Others are Irish Americans whose ancestors were among the first immigrants to work in the mills; the original St. Patrick’s was built in 1869 to meet their spiritual needs.
Older parishioners have lived through dramatic demographic changes. Ever since O’Brien arrived at the parish in 2001, he has pointedly addressed decades of resulting racial and ethnic tensions. “At first I was the enemy of a lot of people because I was going to open up the floodgates to the actual people, mostly Hispanics, who live in the neighborhood,” says O’Brien, who speaks Spanish and liturgical Vietnamese. “But a lot has changed since then. Everyone now knows that we’re trying to connect people with God, so whatever the practicalities are, that is number one. We are all here to live and share the love of Jesus Christ.”
In 11 years, O’Brien’s unequivocal, evangelical mission has helped unify and expand a trilingual congregation in a community rife with entrenched socioeconomic problems. In that same time, the number of operating Catholic churches in Lawrence has fallen by two-thirds, to three, yet St. Patrick’s programs are full and it consistently operates in the black with an annual budget of $1 million, primarily raised through congregant donations. O’Brien’s success depends on his personality—a blunt, respectful honesty peppered with sardonic humor—and a rewarding mix of services.
He led the effort to build a new, beautifully designed $2-million “food shelter,” Cor Unum (“one heart”), that opened in 2006. It combats the reality of urban hunger by serving breakfast and dinner 365 days a year, thanks to hundreds of volunteers. Many children rely on it for their daily meals.
He also consolidated and reorganized two parochial schools to create the Lawrence Catholic Academy (grades K-8), now filled to capacity with 510 students and run by both secular and religious leaders. “If we can get kids as young as possible and give them an all-embracing education, we can get them into the very best schools around here for whatever gifts they have—academic, technical, vocational skills,” he says. “What makes Catholic-school education so powerful is the God part. The best public-school teachers can tell kids to do their math, read, and not to join a gang. But in the Catholic schools, it’s ‘God made you and cares about you and God has a plan for you, so you’re responsible for doing math and reading so you can go out into the world and use your gifts.’” The proof is not only in higher test scores. “In a community with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state,” he adds, “that we have had zero is super-remarkable.”
O’Brien and his small staff (which includes a full-time paid administrator, plus a Vietnamese and several Hispanic pastors-in-training) are adamantly focused on young people. Eight years ago he offended some parishioners by opening the parish center gym on Sunday nights to anyone over the age of 14 who wanted to play basketball. On a recent Sunday about 150 showed up, many of them regulars—young men in their late teens and twenties considered “the toughest of the tough gangbangers around who have been kicked out of every other place,” according to O’Brien.
The rules are simple and strictly enforced: no fighting, no using the N-word or the F-word on the court. These two hours represent O’Brien’s primary chance to check in with youngsters and demonstrate how to deal constructively with pressure, competition, loss, frustration—and anything else that arises in these volubly emotional games. “It took a couple of years to develop this culture of respect and no violence, but they have learned how to police themselves,” he explains. “There is nowhere else they behave, nowhere they let down their guard the way they do here.” Walter Velez, director of technology at the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence, who was married at St. Patrick’s last summer, came one night to watch the games. “I know these kids from the club. We can save them until they’re 17,” he explains. “But Father Paul saves them after that.”
Velez and others find O’Brien’s intensely thoughtful nature and direct delivery refreshing, especially in a priest. “He’s serious; he tells you straight out what he thinks, and the advice he gives is always true,” Velez says. “He’s a father father. I mean, he’s a priest and a father, a man, to all these kids. And for everyone else here.” A 2008 documentary about O’Brien and St. Patrick’s, Scenes from a Parish (www.scenesfromaparish.com), reveals the complexities of building a religious community among diverse groups. “You have to win over a lot of different people and you can’t forget the older people,” says the film’s director, James Rutenbeck. “Father O’Brien knows he has to do that [and he tries to], but because of [his bluntness and] how he is constituted, he doesn’t do it a lot. He’s not a suck-up.”
Despite that bluntness, and what some people may view as a lack of people skills, many have come to enjoy his often irreverent humor. At the grand opening of Cor Unum, for example, Rutenbeck filmed O’Brien showing people around and saying, “The somewhat facetious but true idea was that this is like the Harvard Club of Boston, but with more decent people.” Even O’Brien’s mother worried about how people in Lawrence would respond to his humor, Rutenbeck says: “It’s bracing. But you have to sort of get it, and get him.” To a group of seminarians curious about how he and the clerics on staff relax and rejuvenate their spirits away from the parish, O’Brien said: “We all have girlfriends.” They were unsure whether to laugh.
One of O’Brien’s close friends and supporters is comedian Conan O’Brien ’85 (they are not related), who says, “Paul has the wit and pop-culture savvy of a professional comedy writer, and so a lot of our conversations are so borderline absurd that I can forget the realities of his world.” The star is among a group of about 20 friends and family members (many Harvard-affiliated) who have helped Father O’Brien realize and now run his brainchild, Labels Are For Jars (www.labelsareforjars.org), a nonprofit organization that sells shirts that offset stereotypical assumptions by labeling their wearers “Prisoner,” “Mentally Ill,” “Addict,” or “Rock Star.” The group has raised $6 million for Cor Unum, which serves 225,000 meals a year on a $225,000 budget and now has $2 million in reserves. “Paul is an effective priest,” Conan O’Brien adds, “because he is funny and engaged and earns the trust of the people in his community.”
That respect—for O’Brien personally and the priest’s collar generally—shields him from danger, even when he has gone into gang and drug houses to talk with or find people. “I’ve had a gun put to my head because I am in a place where there are drugs,” he allows. “I have been confident that the person will not pull the trigger. But what if I am wrong?” The predominant group living around the church is rooted in the Dominican Republic. “In that culture there’s a lot of love for one another, and great affection. There is a very strong sense of loyalty. And humor,” O’Brien says, generalizing. “Among the negatives is a vicious violence that means people will slit one another’s throats with great relish.”
The gunshots O’Brien heard from the rectory resulted in a double murder. He walked outside that night to find, a block away, two people in their twenties lying dead in the street, each shot in the head. A crowd of adults and children stood around in their pajamas taking in the scene.
“Those people are dead with their brains splashed on the ground because someone got so angry that they became violent,” O’Brien told the congregation during mass the following Sunday. Just two months earlier there had been a triple homicide, and then there was a man who shot another man in a car, pushed the body out, and ran over it. “We are measurably, without any question, dissolving into more and more violent anger….It has to stop because it is evil.”
Reading from Exodus 22 and Matthew 22, O’Brien explained the difference between anger, which God and Jesus Christ both exhibit, and violent anger—causing harm to another person—which they do not. And then he explored how to truly “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Social programs and checks will not stop violence in Lawrence—but you will, he asserted. Violence is prevented during the 20 minutes people are nourished at Cor Unum—and with every moment kids are cared for by adults at Lawrence Catholic Academy. “Every act of compassionate love, if it’s real, can stop violence right then, in yourselves and in others,” he told the congregation. “Anybody who loved [the murder victims] gave them the space to live without violence. This is very significant. If these people had someone helping them in making good choices, then they probably would be alive today. Love God with your whole mind, soul, and heart, love your neighbor as yourself, the way Jesus loves you. That is it. Any questions?”
With O’Brien, nothing much lands in a moral gray zone. He finds secularism and relativism “insidious.” And American culture’s focus on the material is “destructive in its stultifying effect on the spirit. I know people who have lost their souls to power and money and chemicals in the suburbs who do not even know it is wrong,” he explains. “They’re in cultures like the Kardashian reality—that is sick. People are watching these people on TV who are just repulsive human beings, who have no good values whatsoever, who have made hundreds of millions of dollars by promoting a culture of narcissism and materialism and fame based on nothing—who have done nothing.”
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O’Brien and his brothers, Duncan T. O’Brien ’82, J.D. ’85, and Daniel F. O’Brien ’84, M.B.A. ’88, grew up in a middle-class family in the Brighton section of Boston. They were members of St. Ignatius, a Jesuit parish church. “Both my parents came from families of strong believers. It was not an ethnic Catholicism or devotional, it was just who we were,” he explains. “But I never thought I’d become a priest.”
The call came during a tough exam period near the end of freshman year, when O’Brien was in St. Paul’s, near the Yard, “praying for miraculous intervention.” He was not even paying particular attention and, in hindsight, realized he had always talked at God instead of ever trying to listen, when suddenly, “I heard God tell me he wanted me to be a diocesan priest. It was that specific. It was the most clear, real experience I have had.” Leaving St. Paul’s, he looked warily at the priests “and had the vague notion that they were watered-down, dim-witted versions of the Jesuits who do really boring things.”
A government concentrator, O’Brien subsequently also took religion courses and then volunteered at churches and shelters and with an English as a Second Language program to ferret out the truth of the call. After graduation, he went to Saint John’s Seminary in Boston, then spent five years in Rome at the Pontifical North American College. During one summer, he served in Calcutta with Mother Teresa, who “recognized that insomuch as I was a jerk that I could grow by working in an environment of very deep poverty,” he explains. “I was sarcastic and maybe did not realize how much more of the world there was to know.” Calcutta brought “a big breakthrough from God through which I realized the complete dignity of every human being,” he emphasizes slowly, “and that there is nothing more important than meeting the needs of the person in the greatest need in front of me at any given time.”
Once back in New England, O’Brien was a parochial vicar at the affluent, suburban St. Bernard’s parish in Concord, Massachusetts, before working for six years as secretary for pastoral services for Cardinal Bernard Francis Law ’53 at the Boston archdiocese. He was assigned to Lawrence in 2001.
Law resigned in 2002 under pressure from the clerical sex-abuse scandal. “The hangover from that crisis is going to be very long,” O’Brien says. “There were the most grave, sinful, and terrible crimes, and there was a lot of incompetence among leaders handling these things.” In Lawrence, however, where people “get so used to processing right and wrong and sin and corruption, pretty much on a daily basis, the feeling is, ‘This is what happened and this has been what’s done to address it, and we’re OK going forward,’” he adds. “It’s harder for suburban people to do that, and harder for people who are politicized. People here are pursuing faith as faith and not imposing other things on it. The real issue is: what are we doing about living God’s word and sharing it with other people?”
This is O’Brien’s job—and why he often finds himself firmly, and with a neutral, concrete kindness, telling people what to do. A single mother of three young children asks him to talk with her son about the importance of math. A Vietnamese girl whose father was murdered while delivering takeout food wants to help with church tasks. A struggling parishioner wonders if his decision to leave Lawrence to protect his 10-month-old from growing up with violence is a good one. (Yes, O’Brien tells him.)
He has grown comfortable with this authority. An 18-year-old Dominican whom O’Brien knows well often does odd jobs around the church. “Are you coming to basketball later?” O’Brien asks one Sunday as he is sweeping the gym. “I’m tired, I don’t know,” is the reply. O’Brien responds, “Finish sweeping. Go take a nap. Then come back for the game.” And the young man says, “OK.”
“These kids would sleep all the time or watch TV—which is pretty much the same thing,” O’Brien adds, out of earshot. “Here’s a good guy who is being raised by a single mother, no father, and is sort of floating through life”—and his friends are much the same. “They do not have the mindset or the virtues to develop healthy long-term relationships—those don’t just come by magic or by reading a book or taking a class.”
Instead, he says, they come through connections with a faith community and trusting relationships with solid adults and married people with families. “There will be a lot of kids who will break these cultural patterns through the church—and they will get out of Lawrence,” O’Brien asserts. “At least that is the hope. I do not have the answer to hunger in Lawrence, or the answer to the restoration of the family, or to the education of children. But God does. And the more we listen for and do what God asks us to do, I do expect to be surprised by positive results every single day.”