(VMO) A memorial mass for "Smiling" Jack O'Brien, the charismatic Jesuit priest who founded Canada's first university communications study program at Loyola College in 1965, will be celebrated at Loyola Chapel at 10:30 Saturday, November 28.
Under O'Brien's dynamic leadership the program he developed was incorporated into Concordia University 12 years later when Loyola merged with Sir George Williams and the university became the first in the country to offer graduate diploma and joint PhD communication studies programs.
Father O'Brien was 91 when he died in Pickering, Ont. on Saturday, Nov. 7.
"He was a great man whose warmth and generosity left a lasting impression on our community," said university President Alan Shepard. "Thanks to his foresight, our communication studies department developed into a world-class academic program that continues to make a profound effect on public life. We are grateful for his vision, leadership and humanity."
John O'Brien was born in Montreal on July 3, 1924, and was raised in Outremont, and was educated at Lajoie School and at Loyola High School. O'Brien graduated from Loyola College in 1945. He then joined the Society of Jesus and was ordained in 1957 by Cardinal James McGuigan, then Archbishop of Toronto. He headed off to the University of Southern California (USC) for graduate studies in 1959. While a student at USC, he was elected president of Alpha Epsilon Rho, known today as the National Broadcasting Society, an American association for broadcast and media students.
After earning his PhD, he returned to Loyola in 1964. Before launching Loyola's communication arts program the next year, O'Brien first had to persuade the administration that it would generate interest among students. "Gerry MacGuigan, the head of the English department, approached me to see if I would teach an elective on media and society, a two-semester course," O'Brien told Concordia University Magazine in 2008. "'If you have 10 students, consider it a success,' he said. We ended up with 80."
From the program's beginnings, he explained, "The curriculum had three thrusts: arts, social sciences and the labs. Essentially, we bridged the gap between theory and practice to gain insight into the world we're living in. There was a critical dimension to it, not just a creative one."
The program O'Brien designed in 1965 had students take one third of their courses in some form of media production and two-thirds in clusters dealing with ethics, research and the media's impact on society. O'Brien insisted that his students "understand both what is involved in producing media content and its impact on society. Our goal is not to graduate skilled technicians, but rather critical analysts who will understand how to use media for the common good and for the betterment of society."
O'Brien's first faculty recruit to the new department was Montreal author John Buell, who was teaching in Loyola College's English department at the time. Over the next two years, O'Brien brought in an eclectic and varied group of professors from widely varied backgrounds but committed to the intellectual and creative and socially relevant vision that O'Brien espoused for the emerging discipline. The long list of high-achieving alumni includes journalist Hana Gartner, BA '70 (CBC's The Fifth Estate), former CNN news anchor Brian Nelson, BA '70, movie producer Don Carmody, BA '72 (Chicago), La Presse columnist Nathalie Petrowski, BA '76, TV producer René Balcer, BA '78 (Law [&] Order), movie producer Kevin Tierney, GrDip '79 (Bon Cop, Bad Cop), journalist and author Maziar Bahari, BA '93 (Then They Came for Me), TV writer Barry Julien, BA '94 (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert), Virgin Radio 96 host Isabelle Racicot, BA '95, Radio-Canada reporter Davide Gentile, BA '96, and Arcade Fire's Regine Chassagne, BA '98. "He was tough, but we knew that he was pushing us to become better students," said Donat Taddeo, a former student who became O'Brien's administrative assistant.
Father O'Brien was the chair of the Christian Pavilion programming committee for Montreal's Expo 67 world fair and in 1983, he became secretary for Social Communication to the Superior General Pedro Arrupe where he served as the International Secretary for Social Communications in the general Curia. He also served as a visiting professor at the Gregorian University, the Head of Multimedia International, and as a Consultor for the Pontifical Council for Social Communications for the Vatican where he helped reshape the training of young Jesuits worldwide.
Father O'Brien retired from teaching in 1986. Concordia named him its first Distinguished Professor Emeritus in 1987 and in 2011 he was awarded the Loyola Medal .