Jesuit Father Peter F. O’Brien died on May 3, 2015, at Murray-Weigel Hall, in the Bronx, New York. Age 74, he was born on August 23, 1940, in Teaneck, New Jersey, of Peter and Martha (McGregor) O’Brien.
A Jesuit for 56 years, he entered the Society of Jesus at St. Andrew-on-Hudson, Poughkeepsie, New York, on July 30, 1958, after his graduation from Xavier High School in that same year.
Following his novitiate and juniorate studies in Poughkeepsie, he began the study of philosophy at Loyola Seminary in Shrub Oak, New York (1962-65). He gained a licentiate in philosophy, and a master’s degree in English from Fordham University in 1968. For regency, his teaching experience was at Fordham Prep where he taught Latin, English and religion.
In preparation for priesthood he studied theology at Woodstock College, first in Maryland and then in New York City (1968-72). He was ordained a priest on June 12, 1971, at the Fordham University Church and served as a priest for 43 years. His first assignment as a priest was to assist at St. Ignatius Church in New York from 1972-77.
A major development in his ministry occurred in the 1960s when he first came to know of the great jazz composer and musician, Mary Lou Williams. She had become a Catholic with the guidance of Fr. Anthony Woods, SJ, in 1956. In a unique assignment for a Jesuit priest, Fr. O’Brien became her personal manager assisting her in arranging shows in jazz clubs and on college campuses. He co-taught with her a course on the “History of Jazz” from 1977-81 at Duke University. For almost two decades he advised her, for example, in her compositions of three jazz Masses.
He eventually became executive director of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation. In this way he was able to make her musical genius (and her deep Catholic faith) more widely known. This ministry continued beyond her death in 1981. In 1982, Fr. O’Brien returned to New York City where he resided at the West Side Jesuit Community and assisted in campus ministry at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center. As executive director of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, he guided the foundation as it reached out to assist musicians who might be drug and alcohol dependent.
After several years of ministry and chaplaincies in Minneapolis, he joined the retreat team at Christ the King Retreat House in Syracuse, New York (1991-94) and then at St. Ignatius Retreat House in Manhasset, New York (1994-99).
In 1999 he returned to his New Jersey roots at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, assisting in pastoral ministry. He also assisted at nearby Resurrection Parish until 2004 when he took up his assignment at Saint Peter’s College (now University) as an adjunct professor of English. He continued as executive director of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation and as a pastoral associate at St. Aedan Church until ill health led to his move to the Jesuit infirmary, Murray- Weigel Hall, in 2015 where he died on May 3.