Detroit — Three days after losing their chapel to a caved-in roof, St. Peter Claver Parish lost another, more personal fixture, as longtime pastor Fr. James O’Reilly, SJ, died at the age of 91.
Fr. O’Reilly pastored the east-side Detroit parish from 1995 (when it was St. Francis de Sales Parish) until 2015. Though he recently retired as active pastor, Fr. O’Reilly remained strong in the hearts of St. Peter Claver parishioners.
“He was a humble, holy man. He had this constant smile and he was so giving and unassuming,” said Ed Shea, administrative manager at St. Peter Claver since 2009.
Fr. O’Reilly, who ministered for 74 years as a Jesuit in Ohio, Michigan and Sudan, spent the last 23 years of his life in Archdiocese of Detroit, where he left a lasting impression as a caring and thoughtful priest.
Fr. O’Reilly went out of his way to make sure everyone felt welcomed at St. Peter Claver.
“I came from a suburban parish, and one of the things I noticed when I came here was if somebody walked into the church, it was OK,” Shea said. “It didn’t matter who they were or how they were dressed, whether they had a home or not, everybody was welcome. We all talk about ‘welcoming parishes,’ and a lot of the parishes I’ve been involved in have welcoming committees and things like that, but we didn’t need that here. The people here were welcoming, and that was because of Fr. O.”
Fr. O’Reilly placed a premium on outreach to the inner-city community, and could often be found walking the streets around the parish on Fenkell, talking with whomever he encountered.
“Jesus’ command to love one another — that’s what he wanted to get across to people,” Shea said. “We really have to be good to one another and reach out to people because everybody counts.”
When the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance first began giving awards for “pastor of the year,” Fr. O’Reilly was the first recipient, Shea said.
Mercy and forgiveness were important themes for Fr. O’Reilly’s priesthood, Shea added.
“When he would get to the sign of peace at Mass, he would always say, ‘Think about people you haven’t liked, and reach out to them,’” Shea said.
When he arrived at St. Peter Claver, next-door Loyola High School — a Jesuit-sponsored school — had just opened, and Fr. O’Reilly served for a year as acting president and later as a counselor and chaplain.
Students often would open up to him about problems they were facing, and Fr. O’Reilly wasn’t shy about challenging students who needed it, Shea said.
“He would make them repeat good habits and come back the following week and repeat them again. He was very gentle but firm,” Shea said.
Because of that, Loyola students looked up to him as a spiritual father figure.
“I don’t think you would ever hear any boy at Loyola badmouth Fr. O,” Shea said. “They respected him. He was as much loved as any pastor I’ve ever known.”
Fr. O’Reilly was born June 12, 1926, in Toledo and entered the Society of Jesus in Milford, Ohio, on June 10, 1944. He was ordained June 19, 1957, and took final vows Aug. 15, 1977. He earned degrees from Loyola University in Chicago and John Carroll University.
Fr. O’Reilly served for 22 years at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland in many capacities, including as president, and later as teacher and rector at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, from 1980-86.
After spending two years helping start a Jesuit secondary school in Sudan, Fr. O’Reilly returned to the U.S., serving in a number of roles for the Detroit-Chicago Province.
In 1995, he was transferred to Detroit, where he became pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish (later St. Peter Claver Parish) for 20 years.
During that time, Fr. O’Reilly also served Loyola High School as acting president (1995-96), chaplain and student counselor. From 2005-12, he was superior of the Jesuit community.
Memorial Mass was celebrated Jan. 10 at Colombiere Center in Clarkston.