Jesuit Father Jack O’Brien started up the Department of Communication Arts in 1965 at Loyola College in Montreal. He died Nov. 7 at age 91.

Fr. O’Brien shaped many minds in film world

  • November 28, 2015

There was one happy Jesuit in the background of a lot of your favourite movies, TV shows and broadcast journalism through the last 40 years. Smiling Fr. Jack O’Brien didn’t produce The Fifth Estate, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Bon Cop Bad Cop or Law and Order. He did, however, produce the minds that made those shows great.

At 91 years old and after more than 70 years as a Jesuit, Fr. O’Brien died Nov. 7 at the Jesuit infirmary, Rene Goupil House, in Pickering Ont.

As a young Jesuit, Fr. O’Brien was sent to study film and communication at the University of Southern California. He didn’t just get his 1964 PhD in close proximity to Hollywood. He also became president of Alpha Epsilon Rho, an American honour society better known today as the National Broadcasting Society.

When he got back to Loyola College in Montreal, where he had earned his B.A. in 1945, Fr. O’Brien started up Canada’s first university Department of Communication Arts in 1965. When Loyola merged with the Anglican St. George’s College to form Concordia University 12 years later, communications arts became one of the new university’s signature programs.

The more than 4,700 graduates from Concordia’s program include CNN news anchor Brian Nelson, La Press columnist Natalie Patrowski, producer of the movie Chicago Don Carmody, writer on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert Barry Julien, Law and Order producer and writer René Balcer, and CBC Fifth Estate host and reporter Hana Gartner.

Gartner remembers the priest as a born teacher who paid careful attention to his students as people.

“I remember, I was rushing through this degree,” Gartner told The Catholic Register. “I was compressing it into three years, taking a ridiculous number of courses.”

More than 40 years later, Gartner can’t remember why she was so determined to finish her degree early. She only remembers, “It was ridiculously fast.”

She was one of the first women to take the course at Loyola, which had traditionally been all male.

Gartner’s punishing pace didn’t escape the head of the department’s notice.

“So he called me into his office one day. I was a little nervous. I said, ‘What did I do?’ ” Gartner recalled. “He said, ‘I think you’re doing too much, Hana. What’s your hurry?’ ”

Whatever her hurry was, Gartner stuck to it and graduated in 1972. But through the long years of her career in journalism with CBC (she retired earlier this year), Fr. O’Brien’s question stuck with her. It took a while, but that conversation with the Jesuit priest and professor helped Gartner throughout her life and career to slow down and think carefully about what she was doing and why she was doing it.

“In many ways, I think, he was a real pedagogue. He really was a teacher,” Gartner said.

Fr. O’Brien’s teaching career led him to other adventures. In 1967 he organized the ecumenical Christian Pavilion at Montreal’s Expo ’67. In 1983, Jesuit Father General Pedro Arrupe brought him to Rome to serve as the first international secretary for social communications for Jesuits worldwide. While stationed in Rome he also taught at the Gregorian University and became a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communication. For the Jesuits and for the Vatican, Fr. O’Brien travelled the world helping Jesuits and Church institutions modernize their approach to media.

Fr. O’Brien returned to Canada in 1990 and took on a renewal of the Manresa Jesuit Spiritual Renewal Centre in Pickering, Ont. He moved on from Manresa to some part-time teaching at Toronto’s St. Augustine’s Seminary and established the communications desk serving the Jesuits of English Canada. Then in 2005, at the age of 80, he was back at Manresa, raising money to put it on a firmer ground and leading retreats.

Concordia recognized his contribution to the university in 2011 by giving him the school’s highest honour — the Loyola Medal.

Throughout his many careers, Fr. O’Brien was always sought out as a spiritual director.

Along with his Jesuit brothers through the years, Fr. O’Brien was buried on the Guelph farm where he entered religious life in 1945.

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