Fr. Denis Edward O’Brien, M.M.,
Council Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus
Dallas Council 799
“You Asked For It”
Written by: Fr. Denis E. O’Brien, M.M.
At my age, I am reminded of two old ladies who had a daily checker battle in the retirement home. One day, the eldest, a mere 90, beat the other lady six times. Miffed, the 89-year-old dowager thought of a way to get her aim back. “I forgot to tell you”, she said with a demonic leer, “I had an affair!” “Do tell”, came the riposte, “Who catered?”
I was born in old St. Paul’s on October 8, 1923 and I was baptized in danger of death. We lived in Holy Trinity Parish somewhere around Cole Avenue. When I was able to leave the hospital, my parents moved to Oak Cliff while escape was possible. I grew up in Blessed Sacrament Parish; we were poor but humble and we were clean. We had a tremendous Pastor, Fr. James F. Burns, who turned down an offer to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals because he wanted to be a priest. He inspired many vocations, among them, Father Joe Vann, Carl Vogel, John O’Rourke, John Ellis Mitchell, the Landermeyer twins, Pat Kock, SJ; (Pat and I lived on the same block), and myself. There were probably others later on including vocations when he started St. Elizabeth. More than one family scrimped to send their children to Our Lady of Good Counsel…tuition-$3.00 for a month, and the kids did very well later on. We had CCD on Sunday afternoon; I slept on Carl Vogel’s shoulder. The nuns despaired of Carl and me and offered Perpetual Novenas that God would take us before we were sent to the Penitentiary.
I went to W.H. Adamson High School, 1936-1940 and after graduation worked briefly at Neiman Marcus as a bellhop until I found work at Dallas Power and Light Company. In 1941 I went to St. John’s Seminary in Little Rock, Arkansas, and in 1942 I was “gung ho” and joined the United States Marine Corps. After boot camp and basic training as an artillery forward observer I joined the First Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force, in Melbourne. I was sent to division headquarters, in part because I had a year of college. I did nothing to write about, but I was at Cape Gloucester New Britain, Pelelin (where we lost two infantry regiments in a week), and Okinawa that cost more than 250,000 allied and innocent Okinawan lives; the Japanese used them as decoys. I almost went on to China but I knew if I didn’t go back to the seminary right away I would stay in. I’ve always been proud of the Marine Corps.
Fr. Burns had pointed me toward Maryknoll and after having seen some results of missionaries in the pacific, I thought he was right. I never regretted it so, Bishop James E. Walsh, M.M., the Superior General said, “Ok.” So I studied from 1946 to 1953. Bishop Walsh later spent twelve years in the Shanghai Hilton as a guest of Mao Tse Teung. He drove them mad and they gladly let him go twelve years later.
I spent 1953-57 in Tanganyika, E. Africa, near the Seregeli Plains. My usual transport was a motorcycle. Get home before dark because the lions are restless! One time I didn’t but my guardian angel took over. Another time I was going to turn into the Mission of Iramba and made the quickest stop ever; a mamba was looking straight at me, it’s head about ten feet above the ground. I sat there until it got bored. Another time I went outside to see some people; they were talking while they stood almost on top of a Cobra. Lucky Me! I stepped on it! The Olympic high jumpers would have envied me.
In 1957 I was called back to P.R. I cured them of that when I sent my map of the U.S. with the distances between cities clearly marked. In those days Yankees were not very familiar with maps.
In 1959 I was assigned to the Yucatan. “Where is the Yucatan?” I asked myself. It is a peninsula of Mexico, 500 miles south of New Orleans. It turned out to be Heaven on earth. The Mayas are fantastic! Maryknoll does not accept wealthy parishes so I lived in places with no running water and at times two days from the highway by horse or ten hours by jeep. In one place, Huhi, the people were dirt poor; (ask me about the Christmas apples sometime), the collection on Sunday from two Masses averaged $1.19 in U.S. dollars. I ate in a lot of very poor huts; the cost of my food was $4.00 per week…no cholesterol problems.
In 1971 I was exiled to Mexico City. The parish had 200,000 Catholics and all first class theologians. The first six weeks I had no assistant and I spent Sunday afternoon blessing houses. I was elected Mexico’s delegate to our General Chapter and I returned to Mexico City in 1972 to a less populated parish…only some 80,000 parishioners.
When abortion was legalized in the United States I sat down and tried to figure out how I could keep the horror from invading Mexico. Slowly I got information and on my next vacation while I stayed with Carl at Good Shepherd where he gave me what he had. One pamphlet, ‘WHO KILLED JR’? was a cartoon story of prenatal life so I sent it to Cardinal Miranda. He like it and his Vicar General and his education director translated it into grammatical but simple Spanish. Over the years we must have passed out thousands of these copies. My first film on abortion was, “Abortion, A Woman’s Decision”, in 8mm, produced and filmed by Fr. Bill Cogan of Chicago.
The Cardinal named me pro-life director for the archdiocese and I had lots of lay people who gladly hewed the wood and fetched the water; they made me ever look good and, I still had the parish.
Two interesting experiences: The Cardinal insisted that I act as Chaplain for the Pan American Games and there is where I met Sugar Ray Leonard. There was a World Congress of Women, which I studiously avoided but a refugee Cuban lawyer insisted that I help her talk with the Pope’s representative, Mother Teresa. I tried to stay away from such important company but I was subject to the French Proverb, “What a woman wants, God wants.” So, I spent an hour providing for the lawyer and also, “Surprise father!” for the society columnist of Mexico’s biggest paper, Excelsior. We were in the Hotel Geneva at a table next to the bar, which were the only seats in the hotel and Mother Teresa had everything in order. She told the columnist, “If you can’t see Jesus in the host, you will never see Him in your neighbor.” Truly words to live by!
From 1977-83, I was Pro Life Director for the Mexican Episcopal Conference and lived on airplanes and in nearly every Diocese more than once. The bishops, priests and laity were magnificent. I soon graduated from “preaching to the choir” and began to go to universities and public hospitals. I’d like to think it was my handsome and saintly face, but it wasn’t. I had scientific movies and the people saw for themselves that life began at fertilization.
In 1983 I had come to Dallas for health reasons; it turned out to be the gall bladder. After the operation I was told that I wasn’t supposed to be alive because the gall bladder was all gangrene.
When I returned to Mexico I was assigned to Merida, the Capital of Yucatan. I had seen that there was no professional preparation for retarded people to go to Communion. A lot of retarded people can learn when they receive proper instruction. Thanks to Maryknoll’s benefactors, I was able to study a little about genetics, mental retardation, and catechisms for the retarded; Chicago has a great program. I translated books into Spanish and as I expected, the people overwhelmed me with the desire to help. While in Mexico City I had done a little bit of this so, by God’s grace we started. We had to first convince the parents; by now we had some 90 people going to class every week. Some made their First Communion while others never will, and believe it or not, a few became catechism helpers. We have some 20 kids who are profoundly retarded in our day-care center, so more can do something for a while. We have some 10 kids who are incurable and they were abandoned. We do not sit in an office; we go out and look for them.
On December 1st we will have three nuns from Portugal to direct our center. The retarded won’t be retarded in Heaven. Lucky us, why save them now? Its money in the bank where rust and mold do not consume, nor thieves break in and steal. Our Lord never made it too easy for us, but He has always been doing the heavy lifting and we are most grateful; we have never lacked what we really require.
How did I get back to my native city? In 1988 I was diagnosed with having prostrate cancer. It was removed on August 25th. How am I? I don’t know about tomorrow but today is very nice. Final words in too long a story not worth telling, I learned that cancer is a grace. I use to think I was kind and self-giving to the sick, but now when I talk to cancer patients, I can tell them that I know where they are coming from.
Kiss your cross and join yourself to the Lord on His Cross for the Salvation of all men.
Fr. Denis O’Brien M.M.
written during the Lenten Season, 1997
Read Father Denis E. O'Brien's works entitled
Find out more about
Pastoral del Amor,
a mission started in the Yucatan by Fr. O'Brien
By Those Who Knew Him
Father Denis O'Brien touched the lives and hearts of many, some who knew him personally and some who never met him.
"Ask St. Bernadette"
by: Charles Blythe
Father O'Brien had a great sense of humor. From the early to the mid 1990's I suffered from sleep apnea. The apnea was so bad that I was developing heart problems and therefore was put on some prescription medication. To make a long story short my meds, nicknamed, "Doctor Medicine," were literally killing me. In desperation I turned to my longtime spiritual director and friend, Father Denis O'Brien. Fr O'Brien immediately said that I should pray to Saint Bernadette. I, of course, took his advice. Within a week I had received some vitamins made from natural foods in the mail. One year later I was nearly back to my old self. The sleep apnea was almost completely gone. For the next year I thanked Saint Bernadette for her most fruitful intercession yet I still thought that there was more that I could or should do to thank her. I again visited Father O'Brien and told him how I still felt that I needed to do more to thank Saint Bernadette. Father O"Brien, in his usual humor, said, "Do you expect Saint Bernadette to write you a letter?" I said, "Yeah." Father O'Brien then giggled as usual with his hehehaha.. He then told me to pray for people that have no one to pray for them. I still don't know why Saint Bernadette did not just lead me to a book or something. I guess she wanted me to ask Father O'Brien. He had such a great devotion to Saint Bernadette. Today I just talk with Saint Bernadette as if she were in the same room as me. I tell her to tell Father O'Brien hello and that we miss him a lot. Sometimes I really think that she is really with me....
"Father D Was A Great Man And A Wonderful Priest"
by: Ann Ball
I would have to search to find out exactly when I heard of Father D. We had a correspondence of some years (after he had returned to Dallas) although we never met in person. We did talk on the phone at least once and I think a few other times but mostly corresponded by mail and email. Sadly, the emails aren't preserved. I did, however, preserve something of his that one day I will use in some way, giving him credit.
Father was a big fan of Blessed Miguel Pro, S.J., as am I. I kind of think maybe he first contacted me in that regard. He actually had met the man who was driving the car in the assassination attempt that Pro was accused of. Unfortunately he even used an assumed name when he and Father D met. Even the Jesuits do not know the man.
While he was in Mexico, Father Denis began writing a manuscript about the Catholics during the time of the persecutions. He continued working on it until nearly the time of his death. It is absolutely fascinating and very well researched and documented. As far as I know, I am the only person he copied it for. My son scanned it for me and put it on a CD and I mailed one copy to the Jesuit postulation office in Rome, one copy to Pro's postulator in Mexico, and a copy to Maryknoll's archives. When Father D. died, the Marynollers had thrown Father D's copy away! They thought it was written by someone else!!!!! In his humility, he had used a pen name when writing it.