Who is Father Mike O’Brien? His real first name is Michael, but we all called him simply, Father Mike!
He was sent her to serve as the priest of Saint Joseph Catholic Church, 607 University Drive, Starkville, and he remained here for 12 years as a favorite and beloved priest of this church.
He really became “the priest” for this entire city. Before he was assigned to become a the new priest in Natchez, for about three years, and then on to Jackson, to become the priest of Saint Richard Catholic Church where he is today, this city and the parade committee named him our Grand Marshall for the Christmas parade that year.
He said, in his very Irish accent, “I felt almost like the Pope riding in Rome, Italy as I rode along in a convertible leading the Starkville Christmas Parade, WOW!” It was a cold, typical late November or early December when we always “kick off” our annual Main Street Christmas season, and Father Mike wore a plaid Irish cap to keep his balding head warm that night!
Born in the south of Ireland, he became a priest and arrived in America at the age of 25. He landed in Canton, Mississippi as a young gentleman priest during the height of our Civil Right’s Movement where he served in this city for several years until he made his way to Starkville. As I began to create this column for The Starkville Daily News, I went upstairs into my art studio to get down his portrait that I had painted and presented on the Martin Luther King Celebration, January 17, 2000. I found a letter that I had kept, written on September 26, 2000, that I want to share with “my readers” as well as the portrait I painted 10 years ago.
Dear Father Mike (Michael),
“Late Monday afternoon, (September 25, 2000), I spoke to your parishioner, Mrs. Patricia Uzoigwe, a fine native Irish lady born in the south of Ireland. She told me how touching and how meaningful your Sunday, September 24 sermon was there at Saint Joseph Catholic Church.
The last year you were here with us, I wanted to paint your portrait and to honor you that year for the contributions that you alone had made to the betterment of race relations.
To Father Mike (Michael) O’Brien you will never now know how much you meant to this city, this county, and this university. You have been now at St. Richard Catholic Church serving another congregation in our capitol city, Jackson for years now.
To our Starkville and to other people of different faiths and different races of people other than your own Catholic faith, you touched our lives as well. It was your deep and personal faith that touched our lives. You gave us a glimpse into a faith, Catholic faith that many of ‘us, Protestants’ had never known. It was through your deep, holy faith, and your caring to make race reconciliation better here in a tiny town, in Northeast Mississippi — a better a town that has grown to be a tiny city in 2010. We received a little ‘peep’ into the oldest Christian faith in existence, 2,000 years old—the Catholic Church!
From the very bottom and depths of my heart and from the hearts of my own personal family we dearly love, respect, admire, adore, appreciate you, and ‘thank-you.’
And you will always be sort of ours here at Saint Joseph Catholic Church at 607 University Drive, Starkville, and I can just see you now, taking your place on a cold January day in line to march down Main Street here in Starkville, and offering, without hesitation, the invitation to come to break bread at the very first interracial breakfast at St. Joseph’s that Martin Luther King Celebration so many years ago.
Now, that MLK Breakfast has grown to hundreds of participants, and it is held now at the Colvard Student Center on our MSU campus each year.
You were simply a country gentleman from across the seas in Ireland, and you have made a lasting impression on all of us!