Concordia mourns the passing of Father John O’Brien, S.J.

Jesuit priest and alumnus founded university’s Department of Communication Studies
November 9, 2015
By Howard Bokser

Beloved Distinguished Professor Emeritus Father John (Jack) E. O’Brien, S.J., BA 45, passed away in Pickering, Ont., on November 7, 2015. He was 91.

Father John O’Brien, 2011 Father John O’Brien, 2011

Father O’Brien was a cherished Concordia professor and highly regarded author, speaker and administrator. In 1965 the Jesuit priest founded the Communication Arts program, the first university communication studies program in Canada, at Loyola College, one of Concordia’s founding institutions.

Communication Arts was renamed the Department of Communication Studies in 1977. In its five decades there have been more than 4,700 graduates from the department, many going on to help redefine the media and communications landscape.

The long list of high-achieving alumni includes journalist Hana Gartner, BA 70 (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.

Under O’Brien’s tutelage, Concordia also offered the first graduate diploma and joint PhD communication studies programs in Canada.

O’Brien retired from the university in 1986. To recognize his exemplary career achievements, Concordia named him its first Distinguished Professor Emeritus in 1987 and bestowed upon him the Loyola Medal, one of the university’s highest honours, in 2011.

O’Brien recently returned to Loyola Campus at Homecoming 2015 to help commemorate communication studies’ 50th anniversary.

Father O’Brien (seated, at right), at the Department of Communication Studies 50th anniversary celebration Father O’Brien (seated, at right), at the Department of Communication Studies 50th anniversary celebration on Loyola Campus, September 26, 2015 | Photo credit: Luke Quin

“We’re terribly saddened to learn of the loss of one of Concordia’s pioneers,” says Concordia President Alan Shepard. “It was very meaningful that Father O’Brien was able to celebrate his department’s 50th anniversary with us just recently. A great man whose warmth and generosity have left a lasting impression on our community. 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.”

Veteran Canadian film and TV producer Don Carmody, BA 72, says he remains grateful to Father O’Brien for influencing his career direction. “He was somewhat instrumental in getting me into the Communication Arts program, says Carmody, whose lengthy résumé includes the Academy Award-winning Chicago. “He encouraged me to apply and gave me some hints to help. It was a difficult program to get into even then.”

Carmody adds: “Father O’Brien represented the department effectively and he was always an affable presence. We called him ‘Smiling Jack.’”

Benoit-Antoine Bacon, BA 95, Concordia’s provost and vice-president, Academic Affairs, says, “Father O’Brien will be remembered as one of our university’s most important innovators and builders. He truly was at the forefront of developing communication studies as an important field of study across the country.”


O’Brien graduated from Loyola College in 1945. He then joined the Society of Jesus and was ordained in 1957.

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 convince the administration that it would generate interest among students.

Father O’Brien Father O’Brien, 1965 | Photo courtesy of Concordia University Archives
Father O’Brien (seated, centre) and members of Loyola College’s Communication Arts program Father O’Brien (seated, centre) and members of Loyola College’s Communication Arts program in their temporary quarters on Sherbrooke St. W., circa 1966. | Photo credit: Concordia University Archives

“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 research and the media’s impact on society. The program description read: “Our students must 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.

Father O’Brien Father O’Brien pictured in the foreground of Communication Arts ad in Time magazine, 1967. | Photo courtesy of Concordia University Archives

Among these were author, photographer and filmmaker Charles Gagnon, Miroslav Malik, who was instrumental in the conception and design of the Czech Pavilion at Expo 67, Gail Valaskakis, who played a significant role in the study and research of communication and mass media impact on Aboriginal and Native communities, and of course Father Marc Gervais, S.J., BA 50, renowned and much treasured film scholar.                  

O’Brien’s professional life took him beyond Concordia. He chaired the Christian Pavilion programming committee for Montreal’s Expo 67 world fair. In 1983, he became secretary for Social Communication to the Father General of the Jesuits in Rome, where he helped reshape the training of young Jesuits worldwide.

In his 2011 Loyola Medal acceptance speech, O’Brien said the key to his accomplishments was “being at the right time and at the right place” and “being supported by people who were with me and enjoyed what they were doing.”

O’Brien was active until his illness appeared in early October. His most recent assignment was as advisor to students in training for the Jesuit priesthood at Regis College at the University of Toronto. He returned to Concordia’s Loyola Campus in September and spoke at the reunion.

“Someone said to me today, ‘You were tough!” he told the audience. “And I didn’t apologize because yes, I was tough. Because I really wanted the best from each of you. And if you’re not tough, you’re not going to get the best.”

“But each of you knew I cared.”

Charismatic leader

Donat Taddeo, BA 67, is a former student and long-time colleague of O’Brien. Taddeo remembers taking O’Brien’s first communications class, Mass Media and Society, at Loyola in 1964-65. “He was tough,” Taddeo recalls. “But we knew that he was pushing us to become better students.”

Taddeo, who became a faculty member and held several senior administrative positions at Concordia for nearly three decades, began as Father O’Brien’s administrative assistant in 1972. He worked closely with O’Brien for many years and developed a personal relationship as well.

“He was a great person,” says. “He was one of the first Canadians to earn a PhD in communications, which was still an emerging field in the 1950s. Had he not joined the Jesuits, Jack could have been a major corporate entrepreneur. And he instilled that entrepreneurial spirit in the department and gave it and academic and a social dimension. He was a social entrepreneur long before that term was coined.”

Dennis Murphy, BA 67, was a member of Loyola’s first communication arts graduating class and is also a former Concordia communication studies professor who worked with O’Brien.

Murphy describes the department’s founder as extremely charismatic. “He was a tremendous leader,” Murphy says. “Because of Jack, communication studies focused on social responsibility. He believed that we should train people to think about ethical issues in the media.”

Murphy adds that it was extremely important for O’Brien to attend the 50th anniversary celebrations. “He was thrilled to be there,” Murphy says. “He was in his element.”

“The spirit of Father O’Brien’s vision and leadership lives on in the Department of Communication Studies,” says Sandra Gabriele, associate professor and current chair of the department. “His vision for a department that would make a difference in the media world has been realized many times over in our amazing and accomplished alumni. We proudly continue the tradition he established of teaching our students to be creative thinkers and thoughtful makers of media. We wouldn’t be where we are today — one of the top communication studies programs in the country — without the groundwork Father O’Brien laid.”

“The fact that our communication studies program produced so many highly successful alumni through the years proves that it was not only ahead of its time 50 years ago but remained so under Father’s O’Brien’s guidance and beyond,” says Bram Freedman, Concordia’s vice-president of Advancement and External Relations. “Those alumni owe much of their achievement to Father O’Brien’s skills as a trailblazer and educator.”

“It was wonderful seeing Father O’Brien at Homecoming surrounded by so many of his admirers and former students — he still had a sparkle in his eye,” says Leisha LeCouvie, Concordia’s senior director of Alumni Relations. “Father O’Brien fully represented the Jesuit tradition at Loyola — a man for others. His legacy — like that of so many of his Loyola colleagues and students — will live on through the exceptional educational foundation he built.”

Honouring Father O'Brien

Anyone wishing to make a donation in the name of Father O’Brien can contribute to:

  • The Reverend Jack O’Brien, S.J., Bursary Endowment at Concordia University, online at or by calling 514-848-2424, ext. 3884, or toll free: 1-888-777-3330



Thursday, November 12

  • 7 p.m.–9 p.m.
  • Service at 8 p.m.
  • Chapel at Manresa Retreat House
    2325 Liverpool Road, Pickering, Ont.  L1X 1V4

Friday, November 13, 2015

  • 2 p.m.–4 p.m., 7 p.m.–9 p.m.
  • Rosar-Morrison Funeral Home
    467 Sherbourne St., Toronto, Ont.  M4X 1K5


Saturday, November 14

  • 9 a.m.
  • Our Lady of Lourdes Parish
    520 Sherbourne St., Toronto, Ont.  M4X 1K8


Saturday, November 14

  • 12:30 p.m. 
  • Jesuit Cemetery
    5420 Hwy. 6 North, Guelph, Ont.  N1H 6J2 

Memorial mass:

Saturday, November 28

  • 10:30 a.m.
  • Loyola Chapel, Loyola Campus, Concordia University
    7141 Sherbrooke St. W., Montreal, Que.  H4B 1R6

A reception will follow at the Loyola Jesuit Hall and Conference Centre,
Loyola Campus, Concordia University, 7141 Sherbrooke St. W., Montreal, Que.  H4B 1R6

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