BOONVILLE — Father Sean O’Brien has a new assignment — but it’s not a parish in the Diocese of Syracuse. For the next 11 months, the Navy Reserve Chaplain will serve as Director of Religious Affairs for a U.S. military joint task force based in Djibouti in East Africa.
A reserve chaplain for more than 20 years, Father O’Brien has previously served abroad several times. He was mobilized to Bahrain in 2002, served a 14-month deployment as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom beginning in 2003 and was deployed to Afghanistan for 8 months in 2007. He also served two brief special duty assignments in Kuwait in the past five years, helping service members prepare to return home.
Director of Religious Affairs will be a new role for him, however. In that position, Father O’Brien will work with service members in Djibouti, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Ethiopia to “ensure that all service members are cared for and that all faiths are provided for,” he told the Sun in an interview at St. Joseph’s Church in Boonville last month.
“As a chaplain, I will counsel anybody who comes in [to my office], regardless of whether they’re Catholic or not,” he said. “I will also have administrative responsibilities — to manage chaplains and their religious ministries team, and to make sure all chaplains, no matter their religion, have the supplies that they need, have the space that they need, and get the command support they need, so that our service members, if they choose to freely exercise their religion, have that ability.” As a Catholic priest, Father O’Brien will also visit bases and ships to celebrate Masses, provide the sacrament of reconciliation, help prepare RCIA candidates and offer spiritual comfort and support to those serving.
Father O’Brien said he is looking most forward to celebrating Mass with service members aboard ships and on outlying bases, because “you’re bringing God’s love and grace to people who are far from home and who may be anxious about things.”
“To be there to be someone who talks to them one-on-one, to bring the Blessed Sacrament, to hear their confessions, to sit after Mass and visit with them is exciting,” he said. Meeting service members from across the country and working in countries all over the world has also given him a better understanding of the Universal Church, Father O’Brien added.
There is sadness, however, in leaving his current pastorate, Father O’Brien said. For five years, he has served as pastor of Christ Our Hope Parish, a faith community composed of St. Joseph’s in Boonville, St. Patrick’s in Forestport and St. Mary’s of the Snows in Otter Lake, an oratory that is open in the summer months.
“It’s a very welcoming community,” he said. “I feel very much at home here in the area. And I admire the close-knit relationships people here are able to maintain. People I see at Slim’s Diner have been friends for 60 years and graduated high school together.”
The support of parishioners has been essential in his five years in the parish, Father O’Brien said. “The people have worked so well together, and they’re so involved in everything that happens — taking upon themselves the renovation and upkeep of their buildings, planning the sacramental life — that it’s with great ease the priest can move between Forestport, Otter Lake and Boonville. I have so much support from the parishioners,” he said.
The parishioners, while disappointed to see him go, are also proud and supportive of his service as a chaplain, he added. “Because we’ve been at war for 13 years now, there are a lot of families that have been touched — either their own kid, their niece or nephew, grandchild, themselves, have had to deploy,” he said.
There will be much for Father O’Brien to miss while he’s deployed — family, friends, his dog Abigail, spending time on Kayuta Lake. And, having recently completed renovations to the church and parish halls, he’ll miss the opportunity to sit back and enjoy the outcome of that work, he noted with a laugh. But it might be the broadness of parish life that he’ll miss most.
“For 11 months I’m going to miss the nursing home, the baptisms, the weddings, that part of a priest’s life. It’ll be absent, and I’ll miss it,” he reflected.
Father O’Brien will celebrate his last Masses in the parish August 10, then complete two weeks of refresher training in Mississippi before shipping out to Djibouti.