Death of Bishop James O’Brien, former Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster

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Issued by the Diocese of Westminster

Bishop James O’Brien, former Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, died peacefully on Wednesday 11th April 2007, after a long illness, bravely borne.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, made the following statement:

“I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Bishop James O’Brien. I had the great privilege of celebrating Mass with him at his bedside on Easter Sunday, just a few days before he died. Over the past months, during the course of his illness, I have been greatly edified by Bishop Jim’s strong faith and confidence in the Lord whom he served with such generosity and devotion for over fifty years as priest and bishop. The Diocese of Westminster has lost a great servant and there will be many who will mourn his death. We priests particularly will miss him very much for his friendship, his humour and his great love for the Diocese. I extend my sincere sympathy to his brother and sisters, and his family and friends. May he rest in peace.”

Bishop O’Brien’s body will be received into the church of St Alban and St Stephen, St Albans, by the Cardinal on Wednesday, 18th April 2007. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass will be celebrated at 7.00 pm that evening and will be followed by an All Night Vigil.

Bishop O’Brien’s body will be received into Westminster Cathedral at 7.30 pm on Thursday, 19th April, when Compline will be celebrated. On Friday 20th April, Morning Prayer for the dead will be celebrated at 10.00 am. The Requiem Mass will take place at 12 noon. His Eminence the Cardinal will be the chief celebrant.

An on-line ‘book of remembrance’ for Bishop James O’Brien has been set up on the Diocese of Westminster website at

An appreciation by Bishop George Stack:

James O’Brien was born at Wood Green, London, on 5th August 1930, one of a family of five. He had two brothers, John and Michael and two sisters, Mildred and Marie Celine. His early education took place at St. Paul’s Primary School. He passed the scholarship to become a pupil at St. Ignatius College, then situated at Stamford Hill, from 1942 to 1948. He decided to offer himself for the priesthood in the Diocese of Westminster and studied at Allen Hall, St. Edmund’s College, then at Old Hall Green in Ware. He was ordained to the priesthood on 12th June 1954 at Westminster Cathedral by Cardinal Bernard William Griffin.

His first and only, parochial appointment was as curate to Father Bridgmen at St. Lawrence’s in Feltham from 1954 until 1962. He enjoyed telling stories of the Spartan life he endured in those early years of priesthood, and retained a lasting happy memory of his time there. In 1962 Father O’Brien became a member of the Catholic Missionary Society which had been founded by Cardinal Vaughan. The CMS was a group of Diocesan priests who lived in community and conducted missions throughout England and Wales. After 100 years of service the CMS changed in 2003 to become the Catholic Agency to Support Evangelisation (CASE), which has also taken over the running of the Catholic Enquiry Office (CEO). These were very formative years in his life, and the experience and knowledge he acquired stood him in good stead in his future responsibilities. In 1966 he became Director of the Catholic Enquiry Centre which conducted outstanding work in the area of evangelisation, responding to many thousands of people seeking information about the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Heenan appointed him Rector of Allen Hall in the year 1968. This was the year of the Paris student riots and the turmoil which took place in educational establishments throughout Europe was reflected both in church and society at large. His calm demeanour, his humility and his graciousness to staff and students alike ensured that Allen Hall avoided the worst excess of this turbulent period. The changing face of priestly formation led to the decision that the seminary should move to London (again!) in order that students might take advantage both of the pastoral and academic opportunities available in the City. Stories of “the move” in 1975 are legendary. That it was achieved successfully was due, in no small part, to his wisdom and guidance.

On 28th June 1977 James O’ Brien was appointed Titular Bishop of Manaccenser (Manaccenseritanus) and Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster. He assumed responsibility for his beloved Hertfordshire in succession to the former President of St. Edmund’s College, Bishop Christopher Butler OSB. He was to serve the priests and people of Hertfordshire with total dedication for the next twenty eight years. During that time, his commitment to ecumenical relations became a hallmark of his ministry. He developed close personal relationships with each of the Bishops of St. Albans with whom he worked. The weekly celebration of Mass in the Abbey and the annual ecumenical youth festival and pilgrimage were just two expressions of this important dimension of his life and work. His contribution to life of the wider community of Hertfordshire was recognised by the award of an Honorary Doctorate in Law by the University of Hertfordshire.

As with all bishops, Bishop O’Brien also had national and international responsibilities. He was Chair of the Committee for Ministerial Formation on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference. As a representative of the Hierarchy of England and Wales and also of CAFOD he represented the church in this country at the funeral of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador following his death on 24th March 1980. He experienced at first hand the danger and violence which erupted on that occasion and gave moving interviews on radio and television about those events. In recent years he was responsible in the Diocese for the Department of Ecumenism, Interfaith and Justice and Peace. Each of these areas benefited from his knowledge, understanding and expertise.

Bishop Jim epitomised the description of a gentleman and a priest. His ready smile; His response when asked about his well-being “Splendid my dear”; His advice “Don’t take life too seriously” were expressive of his deep personal faith and knowledge of himself. Long before CAFOD introduced its initiative “Live Simply” Bishop Jim was doing precisely that – often to the amusement of others. In his humility, he was able to laugh at himself and indulge in his great hobby of walking (many miles!), bee keeping and latterly caring for his beloved Labrador, Ben.

At the onset of his final illness he wrote to the priests in his usual gentle way.

I am even more grateful to God for the wonderful life with which he has blest me. Fifty two years in the priesthood, over half of which were spent as a bishop in Hertfordshire, have given me great joy. Despite many human weaknesses, you and the parishioners have shown me consistent kindness and love, and not least during my various illnesses. Illness can have many benefits. It gives one a chance to reflect – to realise one’s dependence on God and the love of others and to recognise that God’s Grace is everywhere… Please continue your prayers now that God’s holy will may be done so that He may be glorified in all things. In the end, that is all that really matters.

He was close to his family to whom we send our condolences. To his brother Michael, his sisters Mildred and Celine and his many nieces and nephews. To his secretary Wyn Taylor and to Caroline McCaffery who cared for him so kindly both in his work and in his time of illness. To the community at All Saints London Colney amongst whom he lived for so many happy years. And to all whose lives are poorer at the death of this great man.

For further details please contact:

Eddie Tulasiewicz
Diocese of Westminster
0207 798 9031