Members of Columbia County's only Catholic church mourned the loss of their new leader this week.
The Rev. John Joseph O'Brien, 61, the senior pastor at St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church, died Thursday evening in a two-car wreck on Washington Road.
O'Brien had taken the position at the Grovetown church June 27.
"It was a shock," said Bobby Christine, the church's Parish Council president.
Christine said he anticipated O'Brien would be a great leader of the fast-growing congregation. He said O'Brien, though cheerful and fun, had a clear vision for the future of the church.
"One of his favorite phrases, or one he used with me was, 'We're going to throw the doors open to this church to everyone,'" Christine said. "He was about strategic vision and growing our parish. But it is so unusual to find somebody who is both that intellectual and also just a blast to be around."
O'Brien was known to many in the area as the former pastor of The Church of the Most Holy Trinity in downtown Augusta from 1983 to 1990.
O'Brien was born in Youghal, County Cork, Ireland, where he was ordained in 1969. In his 40 years with the Diocese of Savannah, O'Brien served in Savannah, Albany, twice in Columbus and twice in Valdosta, among other parish assignments.
Andy Bihl said he became close friends with O'Brien while he served as pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Valdosta for 13 years before returning to this area. Bihl described O'Brien as a great and humble man.
"He was a builder of coalitions," Bihl said. "He made everyone feel like they were welcome, feel like they were loved."
Bihl said that while in Valdosta, O'Brien often reached out to the Protestant community, even organizing a pastor appreciation dinner to which ministers of all faiths were invited.
Leigh Amiot, a freelance columnist for The Valdosta Daily Times, wrote in a June 18 column that she knew O'Brien to embody mercy, encouragement and faith.
The wreck that took his life occurred as O'Brien was returning to a dinner with church priests and others, including Christine. O'Brien had left Ginza Japanese restaurant on Washington Road in Evans to respond to an alarm at his church, Christine said.
On his way back to the restaurant at about 9:20 p.m., police say it appears O'Brien mistakenly turned into the Ace Hardware parking lot next door to Ginza and then attempted to make a left turn onto Washington Road. It was then, police say, that O'Brien's car was struck by an eastbound Ford F-150 driven by Gregory Earle, 44, of Evans.
O'Brien was deemed at fault in the wreck for failing to yield the right of way and was pronounced dead at the Medical College of Georgia Hospital at 11 p.m. Earle refused a blood alcohol test and charges against him are pending, said Columbia County sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris.
A memorial service was held at St. Teresa of Avila on Tuesday and O'Brien's funeral Mass is to be celebrated at noon today in Savannah.
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