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lives lived

Anne O'Brien.Courtesy of family

Anne O’Brien: Religious sister. Visionary. Activist. Friend. Born Aug 2, 1942, in Ottawa; died June 23, 2021, in Pembroke, Ont., of natural causes; aged 78.

On her family’s dairy farm just outside Ottawa, Anne loved to drive the tractor, her younger sister, Phyllis, remembers. But she wouldn’t become a farmer, Anne excelled in school and after graduating from Immaculata High School in Ottawa, she attended teacher’s college to earn her degree. Then returned to teach at her alma matter.

At 21, Anne chose to devote her life to God’s work as she saw it. The Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception (GSIC) in Pembroke welcomed her, one teasing that she was their “world famous dairy queen.” She took her final vows in 1971 and bright young Sister Anne became principal of Immaculata by 1975, and later was principal at high schools in Eganville and Timmins.

She introduced herself simply as Anne. Anne’s friend for 58 years, Fay Edmonds, GSIC, remembers how Anne lived her beliefs, “simply and fearlessly… her freedom was in not needing anyone’s approval.”

Anne pressed for change within the Catholic Church. She became the editor of the Catholic New Times newspaper, a strong, alternative voice in those heady days when Catholic parishioners, even bishops, spoke of feminism versus patriarchy – and the Church’s need for change.

With a deep passion for social justice, Anne worked with many groups and movements for human rights and the environment.

When discussing the needs of refugees in Toronto with theologian and activist Mary Jo Leddy, Anne challenged her: “Take the courage to build your dream while living and collaborating with refugees.” Those words inspired Ms. Leddy to found Romero House in 1991, a shelter, support and advocate for refugees.

Anne worked as an editor at Kairos, an ecumenical advocacy group. It was Anne’s vision and relentless optimism that turned a crisis into strength. When a major funding loss in 2009 threatened key programs, Anne presented a new idea. Create financial stability, she urged, by raising millions to invest responsibly, the interest earned would support the organization’s commitments. Anne encouraged staff to make bold, confident appeals for donations. Her strategy was a success.

Despite many commitments, Anne never admitted the exhaustion or discouragement that seemed visible, sometimes, in the bend of her shoulders over a desk. Other times, she bubbled with hilarity, her body shaking with laughter that resounded across office dividers. Anne was crazy in love with people, chocolate and jokes. She heartily enjoyed jaunts with a friend along Ontario’s summer theatre circuit.

Early in her religious life, Anne was elected to the leadership team of the Grey Sisters. When the Grey Sisters needed to downsize she was called up again. It was important work. Anne wrote in a 2017 letter: “The coming years will have delicate, complex decisions as [religious communities] grow older, frailer, fewer.” She played a key role in planning for the future of her community. Yet, who suspected Anne herself of getting older and frailer.

“Anne died just weeks before her birthday – but she loved precision!” said her sister Phyllis. Indeed, were Anne reading this, she would laugh at herself.

The relentlessly joyful faith-in-action of Anne O’Brien, GSIC, lives on as inspiration to her friends and family.

Mary Corkery is Anne’s friend and former colleague.

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