Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien, retired bishop of Phoenix, dies at 82

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Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien served as bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix from 1982-2003. (CATHOLIC SUN file photo)

Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien, retired bishop of Phoenix, died at 6:11 a.m. on Aug. 26. He served as the third bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix from 1982-2003. He was 82.

“We are saddened to learn of the death of Bishop O’Brien, and we ask the faithful to join us in praying for the eternal repose of his soul,” said Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted and Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares in a prepared statement. “May he know the love and mercy of Our Savior Jesus Christ.”

Bishop O’Brien was born on Nov. 29, 1935, in Indianapolis, the son of Frank R. and Mary Ellen O’Donnell O’Brien. He was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Tucson on May 7, 1961. Following his ordination, he was assigned to Immaculate Conception Parish in Douglas as parochial vicar.

Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien

Born: Nov. 29, 1935
Ordained to the Priesthood: May 7, 1961 for the Diocese of Tucson (before the establishment of the Diocese of Phoenix)
Service as a Priest
  • Parochial Vicar
    • Immaculate Heart Parish, Douglas, 1961-1964
    • Theresa Parish, Phoenix, 1964-1966
    • Gregory Parish, Phoenix, 1966-1969
    • Secretary to the Bishop, 1969-1978
  • Vicar General, 1978-1982
  • Pastor, St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Phoenix, 1979-1982
Ordained to the Episcopate: Jan. 6, 1982
Installed as bishop: Jan. 18, 1982
Resigned as bishop: June 17, 2003
Died: Aug. 26, 2018

Funeral Arrangements

St. Mary’s Basilica
231 N. Third St, Phoenix
Visitation: Thursday, Aug. 30
  • 2-5 p.m. with Rosary at 4:30 p.m.
  • 7-8 p.m. with a vigil at 8 p.m.
Mass of Christian Burial:
10 a.m., Friday, Aug. 31;
Reception to follow at Diocesan Pastoral Center.

In 1964 he was assigned to Phoenix (then a part of the Diocese of Tucson) where he served as parochial vicar at St. Theresa Parish until 1966. Then he was assigned to St. Gregory Parish in Phoenix as parochial vicar from 1966-1969.

On Nov. 19, 1981, Pope St. John Paul II appointed him the third bishop of Phoenix. He was consecrated at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome by Pope John Paul II Jan. 6 and installed as bishop of Phoenix on Jan. 18, 1982. He was also the first bishop in the diocese to speak Spanish.

“Bishop O’Brien understood the vibrant culture of the Southwest and cherished his opportunities to proclaim the Gospel throughout the community,” said Bishops Olmsted and Nevares in their statement.

“During his 21 years as bishop of Phoenix, Arizona was blessed to host two modern-day saints: Pope John Paul II in 1987, and Mother Teresa in 1989,” they added. “These were both a great gift to the local Church under his leadership.”

Bishop O’Brien was responsible for welcoming Pope John Paul II to Arizona on Sept. 14, 1987. It was an occasion which had a profound effect on thousands of Arizonans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

In February of 1989, St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta visited Phoenix to see the plight of hundreds of homeless people living on the streets. As a result of her visit, the future saint decided to open a home in Phoenix run by the Missionaries of Charity. Her visit also brought a great deal of public attention to the homeless problem in Phoenix.

Under his episcopacy, the number of Catholics in the Diocese of Phoenix grew from about 273,000 in 1982, to more than 530,000 by 2003. To meet the needs of this growing population, Bishop O’Brien founded 15 parishes, six diocesan Catholic schools and 15 Catholic preschools. He was also responsible for creating a new Diocesan Pastoral Center in the heart of Downtown Phoenix.

“As the population in Arizona continued to increase throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Bishop O’Brien helped welcome many thousands of Catholics to the Diocese of Phoenix,” the bishops said in their statement. “We will always be grateful for his work in establishing 15 new parishes and six new Catholic schools.”

During his tenure, he also oversaw the establishment of The Catholic Sun as the official publication for the Diocese of Phoenix and as bishop, served as its first publisher.

In May of 2003, Bishop O’Brien and Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley reached an agreement to resolve the county attorney’s yearlong investigation of the diocese and Bishop O’Brien regarding allegations of sexual abuse by priests in the diocese.

On the evening of June 14, 2003, Bishop O’Brien struck 43-year-old James L. Reed with his car. Bishop O’Brien later recalled he was unaware he had hit anybody. On June 17, O’Brien submitted his resignation as bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix. On Feb. 17, 2004, the 68-year-old was found guilty of leaving the scene of a fatal accident. On March 26, he was sentenced to four years of supervised probation and 1,000 hours of community service.

In September of 2016, a civil lawsuit was filed against the Diocese of Phoenix, several parishes and Bishop O’Brien. The lawsuit alleges that an unnamed plaintiff was sexually abused by Bishop O’Brien while in grade school in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Bishop O’Brien categorically denied the allegations and adamantly expressed his desire to clear his name.

In his retirement years, Bishop O’Brien enjoyed spending time with his family and friends. He most recently suffered declining health from the effects of Parkinson’s disease.

Bishop O’Brien is survived by his sister, Jeanne and her husband Victor Dearing of Scottsdale, four nephews and one niece, all living in the metropolitan Phoenix area.