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home : features : people of faith

8/3/2017 9:00:00 AM
100-YEAR-OLD
After wartime service and missionary work, centenarian brother lives a peaceful life
BROTHER JOHN AT PLAY AND AT PRAYER.
BROTHER JOHN AT PLAY AND AT PRAYER.
BY PAT PASTERNAK


"In your daily life, take it easy. Do what you can," says Brother John O'Laughlin, CSC.

Having turned 100 in May, the Holy Cross brother is taking his own advice.

Brother John -- called "Johnny O" by some friends -- has lived at the religious order's St. Joseph's Center in Valatie since 1971, when he retired from active missionary work. He had already had a full life at that point, having served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II before joining the Holy Cross order.

The Niagara Falls native told The Evangelist that it was the war that "helped me to decide to enter" religious life.

Brother John was stationed on Makin Island, the northernmost of the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific Ocean. History books describe the Japanese taking Makin Atoll right after the attack on Pearl Harbor and then fighting American naval and Marine troops, but Brother John doesn't speak of violence, fear and wartime atrocities.

Instead, he talks about the doors of opportunity that opened to him when he joined the Holy Cross brothers in 1947.

The centenarian credits his Irish Catholic upbringing by two faithful parents as having been the catalyst for his own unshakable faith.

"We always prayed together and attended Mass as a family. My parents were wonderful examples of faith; they were solid role models in that respect," he noted.

Sadly, during his formation for religious life, Brother John lost both his mother and father. It was painful, but he commented that "from the beginning, I knew I'd probably never see them again, and I didn't.

"They had been through a lot during the war, having four of their five sons in the armed forces," he added. "We were lucky that we all safely returned. I knew when I told my parents about my desire to be a Holy Cross brother that it would sadden them, having just got us all back from the war. But they were very supportive of my decision."

Assigned to missionary work in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) among the tribal people of the remote Garo Hills, Brother John and a fellow brother taught English to children and established a school.

"When we received our assignments, first we had to learn the language of the people," he said. That was Bengali.

The missionary also had to adapt to a new diet and live in primitive conditions. Decades later, he recalls it as "very rewarding. It was an ideal place to be, really. We could teach the kids [about God] and they would go home and teach their parents."

There were Muslims and Hindus, but many villagers practiced a pagan religion. "If the [pagan] chief of the village became a Christian, then the entire village would follow suit," Brother John said.

He spent 19 years in Bangladesh, founding an open-air school with dirt floors. At one point, he even had a pet monkey. Today, there is an established Catholic diocese in the country, with a bishop from the Holy Cross province.

After Brother John finished his missionary work and returned to the United States, he discovered a center for adults with disabilities not far away from St. John's Center. It piqued his interest, so the brothers made arrangements for him to do a weekly prayer service there, with distribution of the Eucharist.

"I had a boom box in those days, so I brought it down there [and] played some Christian music. We said some prayers and then we had Eucharist," the centenarian said with enthusiasm. "It was good. I did that for a couple of years."

Eventually, the passing years required a more restful lifestyle. Today, Brother John enjoys praying during a holy hour or adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at St. John's Center, where he lives with nearly 40 fellow brothers of the order's eastern province.

His rosary sits on the table next to his recliner. When he's not at prayer, he keeps an eye on the birds who visit a feeding station just outside his window.

"I like to watch the hummingbirds especially," he noted.

Brother John isn't one to look too far into the future, but at age 100, he said he relishes getting to meet God in the coming years -- "I hope."

He offered some simple but sage advice for younger people unsure of their path in life: "Just wait and you will know what God wants you to do. Then you can do it."





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