A Deacon and his Wife: Overcoming Life's Obstacles

Friday, Nov. 24, 2006
A Deacon and his Wife: Overcoming Life's Obstacles + Enlarge
Deacon John and Rita O'Brien work together and live a vocation to the diaconate. Deacon O'Brien was ordained long before he met Rita and the two needed a special dispensation to marry. IC photo by Barbara S. Lee

ST. GEORGE – Deacon John O’Brien and his wife, Rita exude an air of calm confidence. They are devoted to each other and to the parish community they serve. Their lives are centered in prayer and meeting the needs of others.

Ordained in the first class of deacons for the Diocese of Springfield, Mass. 24 years ago, Deacon O’Brien, a chemistry teacher for 30 years, has been through more than two decades of service, the death of his first wife, a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, then applying to the Vatican for permission to remarry and remain a deacon.

"Deacons take a vow of conditional celibacy," Deacon O’Brien explained. "We’re not supposed to remarry if our spouses die or if we divorce. I not only love Rita deeply, I need her. I couldn’t function as a deacon without her."

Acknowledging Deacon O’Brien’s tribute, Rita says simply, "His vocation is a huge part of our lives together, and I love being involved in it."

"I sought out the training and the ministry of deacon in an effort to develop a deeper prayer life," Deacon O’Brien said. He and his first wife, Claire, attended all three years of classes held twice a week, despite the fact that Claire suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and was in almost constant pain.

"Claire encouraged me very much," Deacon O’Brien said. "Even though she was almost always in pain, she always had a smile on her face."

Deacon O’Brien said the first deacons had no ideas what demands would be made of them; what responsibilities would be expected. He vividly recalls his first homily, delivered in a parish about a year before he was ordained.

"It wasn’t hard. The parishioners were very receptive. I remember standing before them and asking myself: ‘Who am I to be preaching to these people? Who do I think I am?’ But when my homily was finished, the congregation applauded.

"The next morning, I got up to give the same homily, and I stumbled over the words. I had to start over. It was very humbling. I said a little prayer to the Holy Spirit and let him take it from there."

One of the great gifts Deacon O’Brien has received from his diaconate vocation has been a much closer relationship to almighty God, he said. "It has also given me a deeper appreciation of other people."

Deacon O’Brien was ordained "on a spectacular day – Jan. 13, 1983. Unfortunately, it snowed. In fact, a rare blizzard occurred that day in Springfield. Deacon O’Brien and his brother deacons had to dig themselves out of five feet of snow before they could be ordained.

"We’d worked so hard for three years. We weren’t going to let a little blizzard stop us."

The first noticeable symptom of Parkinson’s disease Deacon O’Brien experienced was that it became hard for him to sit still. Then, walking became difficult. His brother, a physician, diagnosed the condition, which has no cure.

The O’Brien’s son, also a physician practicing in St. George, urged his parents to move to Utah, where the weather was warmer, and life would be more comfortable for Claire.

"I didn’t want moving to Utah to be the end of my ministry," the deacon said. "Shortly after we arrived here, I went to visit (then-pastor) Precious Blood Father Paul Kuzy. It was as if we needed each other’s help. He welcomed me, and soon after, I was given permission to continue as a deacon here in Utah. We were thrilled."

Claire died in August, 1995, which shook Deacon O’Brien to his very core. He continued on for four years alone.

When in 1999, mutual friends introduced him to Rita, whom he’d seen at Mass and occasionally at the grocery store, he thought right away: "That woman is top drawer."

Rita had noticed the deacon before they were introduced, but her impression was nothing like his. She didn’t know what made him move around so much.

"Is the deacon a drinker?" she once asked Holy Cross Sister Yvonne Hatt of Christ the King Parish in Cedar City.

"By then I’d lost my Clint Eastwood looks," Deacon O’Brien joked. Rita, newly widowed, was hesitant when friends invited her to breakfast after Mass in a group in which the deacon was a regular member.

"I was a little weavy at 9 a.m.," he said. "I felt that God we giving me a wonderful gift in Rita, but, being an ordained deacon, I didn’t know what to do with it."

Rita was unsure for a different reason.

"I thought to myself, ‘What have I gotten myself into? Not only is he a drunk, but he’s probably got a small bank account, too.’"

Today the two laugh about their first impressions. It took them six or seven months to fully appreciate their mutual friends as match-makers.

"We went through all the uncomfortable questions," Rita said. "When we went out to breakfast, who would pay? I wanted to pay my own way. We had some arguments. I didn’t want him to feel obligated to me, and he felt the same."

Deacon O’Brien had already decided to appeal to the Vatican to be released from his vow of conditional celibacy. He was in love with Rita, and he couldn’t imagine living the rest of his life outside his diaconate vocation. He Appealed to the Vatican through the Diocese of Springfield in September 1999.

"We had already decided that if permission wasn’t coming, we’d remain friends, but we wouldn’t date," Rita said. "We got a lot of help from the bishop in Springfield and Bishop (now Archbishop) George Niederauer."

Believing the longer the decision from Rome took, the better the chance would be of a positive answer, Rita began praying earnestly to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. They received permission to marry sooner than they expected – May 2000. They were married in St. George in a simple ceremony in St. George Church. They sent out no invitations, putting an announcement in the bulletin instead. They walked down the aisle together.

"Being married to John has increased my knowledge of the church and enhanced my faith," Rita said. "I used to work in the public relations and development department at a Jewish hospital, so when it came time to raise funds for the new religious education center, it seemed like something I could do." She ran a very successful campaign.

Deacon O’Brien is 79 years old. Rita is 80. Neither plans to retire from their service to the church anytime soon, "much to the chagrin of our pastor, I think," Deacon O’Brien added.

Although he has cut back from the time when he assisted Fr. Kuzy at every Mass, Deacon O’Brien still preaches. The two share a funeral ministry in the parish. With Rita as chauffeur, Deacon O’Brien maintains a demanding hospital ministry. "We’re doing it for the Lord," he said.

Rita adds: "What better can we do?"

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