Twenty-three years after the death of Fr. James J. O’Brien, SJ, on May 26, 1994, his influence is seen everywhere, from how his former students talk about the positive effects of his corporal method of discipline to his prophetic challenge to his students to take up agriculture and come back to Bicol to help the region’s agricultural and economic transformation.
But what stands out among Fr. O’Brien’s many accomplishments is his advocacy to promote the richness of the Bicol culture, encouraging the Bicolanos to do the same. This is his legacy that changed us, his students, forever.
Before Fr. O’Brien, or simply O’B as he was fondly called by his students at the Ateneo de Naga, Ateneans in general were not conscious of the importance of knowing and appreciating one’s culture. In fact, there was an English rule at the Ateneo during our time where students caught speaking Bikol were punished by running around the field fronting the old faculty house.
New York-based Nicol Miraflores, a classmate, made this observation: “Back in my high school days, the first time I became aware of the interesting aspects of Bicol culture was through Fr. James O’Brien. It was a time when the Bicol language was not supposed to be spoken or heard on campus because of the enforced English rule. Ironically though, it was a native English speaker who encouraged us to speak our language and talk about mundane things we considered trivial and took for granted.”
Something changed in 1953 when O’B came into the scene as a young teacher and later in 1961 when he came back after his theological studies in New York.
As a teacher, OB wanted to instill in his students love for Bicol – its language, songs, riddles, history, places and people. He did this by practicing what he preached. He patiently learned the Bicol language. He sang Bicol songs. He solved Bicol riddles with ease. He studied the history of the Bicol Region on his own. He visited selected towns in the Bicol Region with his students in tow and would, at the end, ask them to write about the places they visited. Many of these articles would later be included in the collection of readings that OB compiled to teach Bicol History and Culture at the Ateneo de Naga.
Along the way, he raised his students’ cultural awareness, emphasized the importance and significance of the Bicol culture, and inspired a generation of Ateneans to view the Bicol culture as rich and dynamic. Truly, he was a trailblazer, a gem – though he would not probably like this characterization – and a Bicolano in his full humanity.
In recognition of his contribution in the field of cultural awareness and appreciation, O’Bikoliana, the Ateneo de Naga High School Class of 1966 Golden Legacy Project, will launch as a living memorial to O’B The Annual James J. O’Brien Memorial Lecture Series in September, his birth month.
The Annual James J. O’Brien Memorial Lecture Series is a project of O’Bikoliana to immortalize the vision and advocacy of O’B – the American Jesuit priest who, in his lifetime, tirelessly promoted love for the Bicol culture. The lecture series will bring scholarly examination of some aspects of the Bicol culture as they relate to what O’B stood for. Through the lecturers of the highest caliber from various professions, O’Bikoliana hopes to inspire, provoke healthy discussions among Bicolanos, and instill in their consciousness cultural awareness and appreciation.
The inaugural lecture series is slated on September 7 of this year. It will be held at 2:00 PM in the conference room of the new Alingal Hall at the Ateneo de Naga Bagumbayan Campus. The main lecturer is Dr. Danny Gerona, renowned Bicolano historian, who will talk on The Role of Fr. O’Brien in Bicol History and Culture. The public is invited.
All lectures will be documented in Horop-Horop, a pamphlet designed to serve as a resource material for present and future students, teachers, researchers and cultural workers. Horop-Horop will be available in the O’Bikoliana section of the James J. O’Brien Library.
With the launching of The Annual James J. O’Brien Memorial Lecture Series, it is hoped that O’B will continue to resonate with thousands of Bicolanos and will continue to touch people for many more years to come.