Early years and education
Edwin O’Brien was born in the Bronx, New York, to Edwin Frederick, Sr. and Mary Winifred O’Brien. One of three children, he has two late brothers, Ken and Tom. He graduated from Our Lady of Solace School in 1953, and attended St. Mary’s High School in Katonah from 1953 to1957. He then entered St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers in 1959, from where he obtained his Bachelor of Arts (1961), Master of Divinity (1964), and Master of Arts (1965) degrees.
O’Brien was ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal Francis Spellman on May 29, 1965. He then served as a civilian chaplain at the United States Military Academy at West Point until 1970, when he became an army chaplain with the rank of Captain. He also took flight training that required him to parachute out of airplanes. O’Brien was a chaplain at Fort Bragg in North Carolina with the 82nd Division (1970–71), and in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and 1st Cavalry Brigade and (1971–72). While in Vietnam, he was based in a jungle and flew with a Protestant minister by helicopter to minister to soldiers. From 1972 to 1973, he was a post chaplain at Fort Gordon in Georgia.
O’Brien was then sent by Cardinal Terence Cooke to study at the Pontifical North American College in Rome in 1973, and earned a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum in 1976. Upon his return to the United States, he served as both the vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of New York, and associate pastor at St. Patrick Cathedral from 1976 to 1981. O’Brien coordinated Pope John Paul II’s visit to New York in 1979, and was the archdiocesan Director of Communications from 1981 to 1983. Between 1983 and 1985, he served as private secretary to Cardinal Cooke and then to his successor, Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor.
O’Brien was raised to the rank of Honorary Prelate of His Holiness in 1986. He served as rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers from 1985 to 1989, and of the North American College in Rome from 1990 to 1994. Returning to New York, he served another term as rector of St. Joseph’s from 1994 to 1997.
On February 6, 1996, O’Brien was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of New York and Titular Bishop of Thizica by John Paul II. He received his episcopal consecration on the following March 25 from Cardinal O’Connor, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He selected as his episcopal motto: Pastores Dabo Vobis, meaning, “I will give you shepherds” (Jeremiah 3:15).
Archbishop for the Military Services
O’Brien was later named Coadjutor Archbishop for the Military Services on April 7, 1997. As archbishop, O’Brien served as head of the American Catholic military ordinariate, ministering to 1.5 million Catholics in the armed forces and providing oversight to 300 Catholic chaplains. He also abdicated his titular see of Thizica on March 7, 1998.
During his decade-long tenure, he divided his time between visiting American troops and working with the North American College. He was greatly involved in the case of Eugene Hamilton, a 25-year-old seminarian who was diagnosed with terminal cancer during the course of his studies. O’Brien successfully petitioned the Vatican for Hamilton’s early ordination, and ordained him a priest only hours before he died. In 1993, he initiated the cause of canonization for Emil Kapaun, a chaplain killed during the Korean War.
From September 2005 to June 2006, the Archbishop served in the additional role of the Vatican’s coordinator for the Papal Visitation of Seminaries and Houses of Priestly Formation. He expressed his personal opposition to admitting homosexuals to seminaries, a position he said was “based on 12 years’ experience as rector of two U.S. seminaries. His report also called for a stronger focus on moral theology, increased oversight of seminarians and greater involvement of diocesan bishops in the formation process. He was recognized as being “instrumental in Catholic seminary reform in the wake of clergy sex abuse disclosures.
Archbishop of Baltimore
Pope Benedict XVI appointed O’Brien the fifteenth Archbishop of Baltimore on July 12, 2007. He succeeded Cardinal William Henry Keeler, and was formally installed as Archbishop at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on the following October 1. As head of the nation’s oldest diocese, he served as the spiritual leader of over 500,000 Catholics in Maryland.
Commenting on O’Brien’s appointment, The Baltimore Sun said, “He has leapt from military airplanes, served in jungles during the Vietnam War and travelled extensively to current battle zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. From his working-class roots…to the upper echelons of Catholic power—carrying a Christian message of peace and love to some of the world’s worst war-torn terrain”. The Baltimore Examiner described him as “Army jump school-qualified and troubleshooter for God at Catholic seminaries and remote Vietnam War firebases alike.”
Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem
On August 17, 2011, after John Patrick Foley had reached resignation age, Cardinal Bertone asked Archbishop O’Brien during a visit to Rome to take the position of Pro-Grand Master; O’Brien accepted the next day, and was appointed on August 29, 2011.
O’Brien’s health, in addition to his enjoyment of travel and knowledge of geopolitical situations during his decade as head of the archdiocese for the Military Services, are thought to have been part of the reason for his appointment.
On January 6, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI announced that Archbishop O’Brien would be elevated to Cardinal, along with 21 other prelates in a ceremony on February 18, 2012, where he was created Cardinal-Deacon of San Sebastiano al Palatino, the same titular church held by previous Grand Master, Cardinal Foley.
Cardinal O’Brien was named Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem on March 15, 2012.