Fr. Cornelius O’Brien, Tenth Pastor


Father Cornelius O’Brien was born January 16, 1932, in Ireland. He attended St. Patrick Seminary in Carlow, Ireland, and was ordained by Bishop Thomas Keogh on June 5, 1955. Father O’Brien was a priest in the Diocese of Alexandria, Louisiana, until he was invited by Bishop Thomas J. Welsh in 1975 to become part of the newly established Arlington Diocese.   Father O’Brien–priest, theologian, and teacher–is one of the most studied Thomistic scholars of the day.  He completed coursework for a doctorate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.  Before coming to St. James, Father was assigned parochial vicar at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More and St. Agnes in Arlington and pastor at St. Lawrence in Alexandria and St. Timothy in Chantilly.  Additionally, Father was director of the Notre Dame Institute, now the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College, in Alexandria (1976-79) and served as chaplain at Christendom College in Front Royal for 25 years. He taught metaphysics and history of philosophy at the Association of Seminaries in Washington, DC.  Father O’Brien became the tenth pastor of St. James Parish in 1999.  

Many parishioners remember Father O’Brien’s eloquence when delivering a homily from the pulpit. Though Father was in the United States for many years, he never lost his Irish wit and retained a soft touch of the brogue.  Father was a popular speaker.  Following Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, parishioners would fill Msgr. Heller Hall for a slide presentation and lecture on the Shroud of Turin.  Father presented lecture series on other topics, including St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and the cardinal virtues. He was co-founder of the Adoremus Society, which promotes renewal of the liturgy.  Writings and audio tapes can still be found on   

As we walk up the steps to enter church, a 6-foot bronze statue of St. James greets us.  It was Father O’Brien who envisioned a statue of our patron saint for the parish grounds.  Father went to great lengths to find a sculptor to represent St. James, Patron of Pilgrims, in the garb of a pilgrim, with staff, gourd and the scallop-shell symbolic of the Camino de Santiago. 

The 2005-06 year-long centennial celebration of St. James School opened with Holy Mass celebrated by the Most Rev. Paul S. Loverde, Bishop of Arlington.  Present at the altar were Father O’Brien and Deacons Jim Fishenden and Tom Bello.  Following Mass, Father O’Brien escorted Bishop Loverde as he blessed the statue of St. James and the school.

Father Cornelius O’Brien retired on June 28, 2006.  In July, he returned to his home in Cork County, Ireland, in a quiet village–the place of his parents and grandparents, and the eighth generation of the O’Brien family. He wanted to begin his retirement by completing his book on the human person, supported by years of research he had done on St. Thomas Aquinas and later Thomistic theologians.

Father O’Brien’s parting message: 

Dear friends, we must remember that parting need only be a spatial reality. Deep matters of the soul transcend space, and we gather together in the moment of our coming from God. The good things experienced by us in the past live on within us into the future. It is so in friendship. It is very much so in Christ.

My life as a priest for fifty-one years has been filled with joy. You have given me the opportunity to pursue my love of truth, and the honor of working with some of the finest people in the world. You have been most generous in expressing your gratitude and praise for my poor efforts among you. You will be in my mind as I attempt to put on paper the splendor of the human person.

Now I wish to thank the priests, who have been my companions, the Sisters who have been so faithful, but especially you, the people, who are the reason for our existence, and who have cooperated so well in our efforts to bring you closer to Christ, the Truth.

Finally — again, remember that we, who have together loved and served Our Lord, can part only if we depart from Him. With His help we will not leave Him.

So, farewell until we meet again. Until then and forever, may God keep us in His safe hands.