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Issue Date:  January 7, 2005

A 'gentle prophet' who lived the Beatitudes


She was a gentle, smiling woman. Same pew every morning at Mass in St. Thomas More Pro-Cathedral in Tallahassee, Fla. Modest, and calming. So modest that when the local Notre Dame alumni association honored her, she said she would accept only as long as there was no publicity. Her children didn’t know about it until her death Nov. 27.

Sheila O’Keefe O’Brien had the quiet Christian calm that took her into many a lion’s den. She was a local leader in the Sanctuary Movement that assisted persons fleeing to the United States from persecution in Central America, and one of a handful of original protesters against the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas that trains Latin American military officers.

Wife of James J. O’Brien, a Florida State University professor and world-renowned meteorologist and oceanographer, she was a mother of five. The couple lost one child, Sean, as a crib death, and their 12-year-old daughter, Dealyn, to Reye’s syndrome.

After Dealyn’s death, Sheila formed a local chapter of Compassionate Friends, just as she had led the formation of the local Pax Christi USA chapter and Tallahassee Citizens Against the Death Penalty. She was an unwavering force on the Tallahassee Network for Peace and Justice.

Appointed to the Pensacola-Tallahassee diocesan Justice and Peace Commission by Bishop John Ricard, she was involved with those who raised the awareness that led to the release of 26 innocent people from Florida’s death row.

St. Thomas More’s pastor, Msgr. Michael Tugwell addressed the more than 500 people who packed the church for her funeral. He told her husband, and children, Karen, Kevin and Denis, their spouses, their children, and their extended family that when Jesus created the Beatitudes he looked down through the ages to his disciples of future generations. In the 20th and 21st centuries, “he saw Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and Sheila O’Brien among those living these Beatitudes.”

Tugwell spoke of how Sheila mourned the mounting deaths of children in Iraq. How he had accompanied her and another parishioner to Haiti so St. Thomas More could begin to twin with one of the island’s poorest parishes.

Born in 1935, Sheila O’Keefe attended Duke University and transferred to Columbia University where she graduated with a degree in nursing. Early in her married life, working in a segregated hospital in Texas, she quit when she was not allowed to take oxygen from the “white” side to a man on the “black” side. When she complained, she was fired. A local doctor heard of the incident and hired her.

She was an accomplished musician who played bassoon with local orchestras. Her interests ranged from local Alternative Christmas Market, aimed at reducing the commercialization of Christmas, to volunteer work over many decades with Florida Impact, which mobilizes local communities against hunger and poverty.

Her stance for animals and the environment was well known, though not always conducive to household efficiency during the rainy season. She refused to have a clothes dryer and all clothes were hung on an outdoor line.

She was quietly proud of her “nonviolent” backyard, an oasis of trees and bushes, a pond, and quietude.

In a rare interview, a decade ago, O’Brien was asked how she became so involved locally in social justice issues. She replied, quite simply, that too many unjust situations existed in Leon County, Fla., and “someone needed to work on solving some of the problems.”

Tugwell called her a “gentle prophet who worked relentlessly, but quietly.”

Her funeral took place Dec. 2, the anniversary of the martyrdom of the four American churchwomen in El Salvador.

At the conclusion of Richter’s eulogy, as Sheila O’Brien’s name was called out, the cathedral resounded with the cry: “Presente! Presente!”

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. Sheila O’Brien was his sister-in-law.

National Catholic Reporter, January 7, 2005

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