Father Sean O'Brien, O.F.M.

Ever wonder who the minds and hands behind the Franciscan Center for Service and Advocacy's service trips are? Have you ever watched the Mentoring Program kids having fun with your classmates on a Saturday afternoon? Well, here's the guy who does it all -- Father Sean O'Brien!

Her Campus Siena: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from?

Father Sean O’Brien: I’m right from here, from Albany; I grew up in Loudonville. I went to Saint Pius X for high school, right down the street. I have family in the area. I went to Niagara University for college—I was an English communications major, but I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with that.

HCS: How did you get involved with religion and the priesthood?

Fr. SOB: As a little kid, I grew up in a pretty Irish Catholic family. But as a young kid, I had a desire to be a priest. Church was a big part of my life—intertwined with school. But just like any other kid, I was bratty, I wasn’t a pious holy roller. But as I attended and graduated from college, it was in the back of my mind. After I returned to Albany, I had a couple of different career choices. I worked for a textbook publishing company and a legal service company. In my twenties, I was involved in a very serious car accident, and I began to rethink: what am I doing with my life? I went to New York City and lived at Covenant House in Times Square. It was very seedy, but it was a shelter for homeless kids. Living and working there fueled my vocation quest.

HCS: How did you end up joining the Franciscan friars?

Fr. SOB: When I looked at the priesthood, I wanted to join in the context of a Franciscan friar. I knew the friars through Siena, growing up here, and I always loved their message and their goodness. The Franciscans are a religious community—we’re not priests, we’re brothers— and this influences the things that we do and the things that we are about.

HCS: What brought you to Siena?

Fr. SOB: Prior to Siena, I was working at a parish church in urban Tampa, Florida, that I really loved. However, my family was still in the northeast—my mother was in a nursing home, and I didn’t like being so far away. I was good friends with Jim Snyder, who was then the head of the Mentoring Program, and he was soliciting me into taking over it. I didn’t want to take this project on, but when he (Jim) passed away, I was ushered into taking it over, and I had to go with it.

HCS: Do you feel like you’ve been brought to the right place?

Fr. SOB: It was a challenge to return—coming from a parish to a college campus. There’s a lot of things that are very different. However, the Mentoring Program is something that is very important, and that I believe in, along with the Franciscan Center.

HCS: Tell me more about the Mentoring Program.

Fr. SOB: It has a long legacy at Siena of over 50 years—it was originally a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program that Jim Snyder started, in which he would bring inner city kids to Siena and partner them with his buddies. It was about helping these kids see another world, but his buddies also began seeing another world. So, every Saturday, we do different activities such as apple picking, ice skating, bowling…everyone learns, bigs and littles alike. These kids come from hard places, so they come to comforting and memorable environments. It’s the beauty of two cultures coming together. When those buses arrive at 12:00 from Arbor Hill, it’s a melding of friendship. There aren’t any distinctions between us—even though there are, we just come together.

HCS: What do you find most rewarding about your job(s)/positions?

Fr. SOB: The different ways in which I can enter into people’s lives. With the littles, I work with CPS, principals, teachers, social workers and parents. Also, in working with Siena students—I get to be part of events that can be life-changing. To be able to see the good times and bad times with them. To be with college students who are forming their own vocations and paths. I’m still in touch with Mentoring Program kids who have graduated, and this program is something they remember. As a Franciscan priest, I can enter into the lives of people in different ways: I help at a prison on Tuesdays, I work at a city parish. You’re there when people are having a baby baptized, when couples are getting married. You’re helping people with kids who have anxiety or hate school. You’re in touch with all sides of people.

HCS: Where is your favorite place to have served, either as a friar or not as a friar?

Fr. SOB: All the places I have been, I have good, favorable memories of. Some were more challenging than others. Some you would want to go back to. I think in terms of context, I liked being in a parish setting, because you could encounter a really diverse array of people. Whether they were parishioners, homeless people, AA participants, police officers…you dealt with a lot of people in the community; there was no limit. You’d encounter the mayor, someone homeless, a parishioner’s incarcerated son and a young couple planning their wedding all in the same day.

HCS: What do you most want to see happen for the Mentoring Program and/or the Franciscan Center?

Fr. SOB: For the Mentoring Program, I would like to be able to have a stronger component that helps the high school population in the program to deal with the pressures that they are confronted by: finishing school, staying away from gangs and drugs, and really being able to focus and recognize the gifts that they have. One that plants the seeds for formulating a vocation. College isn’t for everyone, but having a vocation is essential. I hope this program will always serve as a catalyst of sorts that brings the kids who come to us to want the best for themselves.

HCS: If you could choose any place to spend the rest of your life, where would you choose to go and why?

Fr. SOB: I never want to go back—as great, memorable, and meaningful as places have been, I always want to go forward. Whether it’s California, Chicago, or places in the Caribbean where I’ve worked, I just want to keep going. There are always opportunities that land on your doorstep that you never in a million years would have imagined. I just keep an open vision, I guess.