|Marquette’s O’Leary Speaks His Jesuit
By Bridget Thoreson
The Jesuit philosophy of being a "person for others" describes the life
of 73-year-old James Joseph O’Leary.
Known as J.J., Fr. O., or Fr. James to his various students and friends,
O’Leary has been a member of the Society of Jesus since 1952. O’Leary was
a sophomore at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., and a month short
of 21 when he decided to try the priesthood.
"I went into pre-med, I think, as I look back to please my father. He
was a medical doctor," O’Leary said. "And then all of a sudden, I cut the
frog open and blood squirted. I said ‘I don’t want to be a doctor.’ Then,
like so many students here, I didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know what
I’d go into, and I said, ‘Well, I’ll try this.’ The Jesuits. I didn’t think
I’d stay, so ‘I’ll try it, see how it goes, but I’ll probably be out soon.’"
"Soon" turned into 54 years. Born in Milwaukee to an Irish Catholic
family, the Jesuits had always been part of his life. He attended Marquette
High School, a Jesuit school, and then Marquette, a Jesuit university.
"When I thought of priesthood, I just thought of Jesuits, because I
went to Marquette High," O’Leary said. "Jesuits were always at our house,
because my dad always gave them a bottle of booze and $20. It was like
Grand Central Station, they were coming and going."
O’Leary had a strong Catholic influence on him as a child and he attributes
his strong faith to his mother.
"When we were kids, we couldn’t go out and play ball. Right after dinner,
everybody would kneel down and say the family rosary," he said. "That came
from Ireland. That was very Irish. Whoever was there, everybody had to
kneel down and say the rosary: Protestants, Jews, everybody."
All of O’Leary’s grandparents came from Ireland to America, where they
met and married. Fully Irish, he sits in the lobby of the Jesuit residence
at Marquette in a light green sweatshirt with "O’Leary’s Pub" emblazoned
across it, originating from a pub in Co. Galway.
"It should be Co. Cork," he said. "O’Leary is a Cork name."
For the record, however, he is no relation to the Mrs. O’Leary of Chicago
"But I always pretend it is. No relation though. My brother Jerry traced
that," he said. "She probably had a little too much o’ the creature and
started the fire, probably."
His grandparents had big families, his father being one of 12 children
and his mother one of 13. In his own family of five children — four boys
and one girl — both O’Leary and his oldest brother, Bill, became Jesuits.
O’Leary said that Bill, who is four years older, did not really impact
his decision to also join the priesthood. O’Leary said his family supported
his decision to join the Jesuits "enormously."
"My dad was wonderful," O’Leary said. "When I was having a hard time,
he always said ‘Don’t stay, come on home if you want. Do what you want.’
He was really good."
O’Leary needed that support through his first several years with the
Jesuits. For seven years, O’Leary wavered in his decision, until he taught
at Campion Boarding School in Prairie Du Chien, Wis.
"I went there and I said, ‘I’ll give it one more year.’ And I had a
wonderful experience teaching at Campion," he said.
Fr. William Kelly, who entered the Society one year ahead of O’Leary,
said O’Leary was very popular with the school’s pupils. "He’s quite a charming,
outgoing, humorous man," Kelly said. "Quite a storyteller, full of the
That humor sparkled in his hazel eyes while he recounted his years teaching
theology, with six years at Marquette and then eight years at the University
of San Diego. He chuckled as he recalled living in a freshman dorm at Marquette,
"I loved it. I liked it a lot," he says. "Except at 2 a.m. on the weekend,
it was just kegs going by my window. And that’s a scholar’s life, if you
can’t take the noise, don’t be in the dorm."
While living in the dorms, he was a counselor to needy students. "At
least they could come and talk, and sift through their life and they knew
they wouldn’t be judged, no matter what it was," he said.
O’Leary is still in touch with some of his students. Mora Moede, who
was graduated from Marquette in 1988 with degrees in theology and political
science, took O’Leary’s introduction to theology course in 1984.
"He was phenomenal," Moede said. "What I learned in his class deepened
my faith tremendously and still comes back to me today." She also took
a one-on-one prayer class with him her senior year. She has kept up her
relationship, with O’Leary saying Mass for her family six months ago.
"He’s the first person I call if I have something really serious to
pray for," she said. "I just think Fr. J.J. is a great example of holiness."
Besides teaching, O’Leary spent time working at retreat houses and hospitals,
received his master’s degrees in Latin and religious education and became
a doctor of divinity. He also practiced clinical pastoral work. His focus
and interest has always been, as O’Leary says, "people."
Currently, he is the Tertian director for the Wisconsin province of
the Jesuits, which includes eight states. He returned to Marquette two
years ago for this work, which involves guiding Jesuit priests through
their final year of study with a series of retreats.
"We finished theology and then we’d go right into tertianship for nine
months," O’Leary said. "The idea of the thing was to get back to the school
of the heart after studying it in your mind, get back and do something
that’ll move your heart."
The priests begin in the summer, when they study the history of the
Society and reflect on the life of its founder, Ignatius, and their own
lives. After a month-long retreat, participants return to their normal
work. They then meet at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter for smaller
retreats, before concluding with an eight-day retreat the following summer.
"I’m glad to be here. I love it. I think I’m helping the Jesuits and
helping them sift through their lives, and I know they appreciate the program,
and that makes me feel good," O’Leary said. "There’s no job I’d rather
be doing at 73-years-old than the one I’m doing right now, so I really
like it. I loved teaching when I taught, but when you get my age, I’d rather
be with older people."
O’Leary has built the program around the needs of his participants.
"Usually we take time off, but I didn’t make them take time off," O’Leary
said. "They just keep the job they’re in. I wanted to streamline it. I
knew a lot of them didn’t want to take time off. They’re working for tenure,
they’re writing books, they’re in plays. I didn’t want to take them away
from that. So I got permission to do this program for three years."
Fr. Grant Garinger is currently in the tertianship program under O’Leary,
who, he said, makes sure that the participants have everything they need.
"For someone in his 70s, he’s someone who is a positive thinker and
someone who is mindful of the future," Garinger said. "He is energetic,
he is humorous, he is very spiritual and prayerful. He is willing to share
his experiences in any way to help us."
Fr. Thomas Schloemer, who has known O’Leary for 45 years, said that
he is always the most lively and well-liked in a Jesuit community.
"He’s sensible and he is kind. As far as the Society goes, he has a
lot of experience," Schloemer said. "He’s somebody whose judgment you trust."
O’Leary has been directing the program for two years, and will be directing
it for one more. After that, he does not have any plans for what work he
will be doing.
"I’ll probably be planted," he said with a laugh. "I’ll be posthumous,
at my age. This is it. I’ll do it as long as I can, but then I don’t want
another job. I’ll always give retreats, I like to do parish missions …
We have no one to retire with, so we don’t retire. We always want to do
He has several other activities to keep him busy, though. He has been
an avid golfer since the late 1970s, when he picked it up from colleagues
at a retreat house. In the 1980s he found out a colleague was celebrating
his 50th birthday by taking a golf trip to Ireland, "so I got the ruse
up to go with him."
This was the second time O’Leary had gone to Ireland, the first being
when he was studying in Rome in 1969.
"I loved it," he said. "The people were so friendly. It was just wonderful
people, they were so hospitable. I didn’t golf at the time, in ’69," O’Leary
added. So he simply toured, met the locals and went to the pubs. "It was
wonderful," he enthused.
O’Leary’s interests are not limited to just the golf course. "I enjoy
movies, plays. I don’t do opera, but I was in New York so I saw the play
Wicked last week. Oh, fabulous. Just great," he said. "I love that,
and that’s about all I do. Travel a lot, read a lot. My job keeps me reading.
A lot of stuff on Ignatian spirituality."
His job keeps him busy traveling to meet with other tertian directors,
in places such as San Francisco, New York, Boston, Omaha, Minneapolis.
"He’s a will o’ the wisp because he’s always on the move," said Kelly,
who is the president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Milwaukee. "I
can’t get him too interested in the Hibernians … he’s too much on the move,"
Compared to his siblings, O’Leary said that he was not as involved with
his Irish heritage. He said his late brother, Jerry, was the most interested
in Irish culture. He said he hoped to attend Milwaukee Irish Fest for the
first time this year, since he has previously always been out of the city.
O’Leary wasn’t in town for St. Patrick’s Day this year either. But he loaned
some of his Irish tapes (made for him by Jerry) to a friend to play.
"He is into Irish music and stuff like that," Schloemer said. "He’s
kind of a consummate Irishman. He’s thoroughly Irish but not obnoxious."
After spending his life serving the Church, O’Leary said there are many
issues that face the institution today.
"First of all, the pedophile problem is scandalous. I mean, we’ve
lost credibility. If people know us, they accept us and love us. But now,
a lot of what’s come out is scandalous to me. Just one is too many," he
said. "So the challenges today, with a smaller number – most priests are
overworked — in the parishes where there were three or two, there’s one.
They should allow priests to marry, first of all … They should ordain women
too. Why deprive the people of God all these talented women? It’s crazy.
But the Church is screwed up sexually because male celibates make all the
However, he said these issues, as well as sexual challenges such as
homosexuality and the viability of marriage annulments, will be eventually
"It’s gonna take time," he said, adding with a laugh: "And then the
Church will say. ‘As we always taught.’"
But for himself, O’Leary is happy with his decision to stick with the
"I didn’t enter with a big desire, I don’t think," he said. "I just
said ‘Well, I’ll try it.’ And now I’m grateful, I’ve had a wonderful life.
I’ve had a great life."