As a boy, Paul Anthony O’Brien relished the stories of adventurous missionaries he read about in the Maryknoll magazines his father brought home. How romantic, he thought, traveling to far-away places, living in primitive settlements, working nobly to bring basic services to the poor forgotten peoples of unknown lands.
Now, after celebrating his 50th anniversary as a Maryknoll Missionary priest, O’Brien is relishing a lifetime of doing just that. His 33 years in Bolivia involved service and a grab-bag of wild adventures—no electricity or plumbing in Riberalta, riding reluctant horses to rural out-stations of the San Jose parish, risking piranha attacks in the Beni River.
After graduating from Xavier in 1951 with a philosophy degree, he tried to evade what would be his calling. He served two-and-a-half years in the Army. Then he tried law school, but his heart wasn’t in it. Finally, he listened to the message that kept playing in his head: You can be a priest. He thought of joining the Jesuits, but he didn’t want to teach. He wanted to travel. So he entered the Maryknolls, and just before his ordination in 1959, he received his first assignment: Bolivia.
“Being a missionary is the greatest sacrifice,” he says. “It’s romantic. The need, the abandonment, the lack of priests is what turned me on. I was assigned to a language school for six months, then to Riberalta in the northeastern corner of Bolivia.”
Aside from a couple of stints back home for training in pastoral counseling and parish work, O’Brien stayed in Bolivia. His last assignment was in La Paz, at 12,500 feet above sea level, where he worked for more than 20 years. There he accomplished perhaps his most important work—founding Casa Nazareth, a spiritual center offering a program of retreats in the style of the Jesuits’ Ignatian spirituality. That ended in 2005 when health issues brought him back to New York where he continues his prison and hospital ministry.
But his heart, if not his mission, remains in Bolivia. “I still hear from a number of my Bolivian friends, and I still send them money,” he says. “From them I learned simpatico. They’re very family-oriented. I hope it changed me a little bit, maybe made me more of a heart kind of person.”