The Saint Ignatius community mourns the loss of Fr. James E. O’Reilly, S.J., former president, teacher and administrator. He passed away on Friday, January 5, at the age of 91. A central figure at West 30th and Lorain for 22 years, Fr. O’Reilly played a key role in the 1970s in deciding to have the school remain in Ohio City.
“Fr. O'Reilly was the consummate caring priest,” said Saint Ignatius President Fr. Ray Guiao, S.J. ’82. “I always had the impression that no one was more important to Fr. O'Reilly than the person he was with, be it student, parent, teacher, fellow counselor, alumnus, or benefactor. He was the kind of priest whose gentle manner and sincere bearing made us all feel like he had as much care for our souls as for our person. Fr. O'Reilly cared and loved as a priest in ways that would make Pope Francis proud, for he loved his flock with the love of a tender shepherd.”
Fr. O’Reilly was born on June 12, 1926, in Toledo and joined the Society of Jesus in June 1944 after graduating from Wisconsin’s Campion Jesuit High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Latin at Loyola University Chicago and a master’s in counseling from John Carroll University.
His first role at Saint Ignatius was teaching English and Math from 1951-1954. After he finished Theology studies, he returned in many capacities, serving as a Theology teacher and counselor, director of counseling and rector of the Jesuit community (1970-1974), president (1974-1979), and vice president for alumni (1979-1980).
During Fr. O’Reilly’s presidency, there was pressure to move Saint Ignatius to the suburbs, which he resisted. The decision helped preserve Saint Ignatius’ unique history and location, and the school has become an anchor in Ohio City. Today’s students learn to love and serve their neighbor by ministering to the homeless, tutoring children in after-school programs, and supporting many local agencies through Sophomore Service.
The acquisition of land that is now Wasmer Field was another significant achievement under Fr. O’Reilly. In the northeast corner of the track and field is a statue of St. Joseph, to whom Fr. O’Reilly prayed that his vision would come to fruition.
“Fr. O'Reilly was the priest that conducted the marriage ceremony for [fine arts teacher] Pat and me 43 years ago,” wrote Chuck Kyle ’69, English teacher and Head Football and Track & Field Coach. “Also, I became the head track and field coach my first year here as a teacher. Fr. O'Reilly loved track and field so much that he was the shot put and discus coach. So one of my assistants in track and field was the president of the school. At that point, I realized that Saint Ignatius High School is unique.”
So in addition to his leadership in the board room, Fr. O’Reilly also led on a very personal level. In the hallways, classrooms, practice fields and common areas around campus, he was a trusted presence and worked hard to build a community of inclusion.
“Father personified Christ for me,” wrote Dominic Ozanne ’71. “When 20 black boys arrived at Saint Ignatius High School in 1967 Father went out of his way to make both black and white freshmen feel welcome. He used to walk the cafeteria at lunchtime and make students sitting alone or with their friends join others. There was no black table during Father’s tenure.”
“Several times when I was at school on Saturday I recall Father sitting in a chair in the parking lot behind the main building watching the ‘neighborhood’ kids play,” said Ozanne. “As you recall these kids were not allowed on school grounds except when Father and a few other Jesuits were around. I often saw Father in the neighborhood at all hours of the day and night helping people.”
Math teacher Paul Kobe ‘79 said, “Fr. O'Reilly gave a talk at my freshman class retreat in the fall of 1975. I truly have forgotten the content of his presentation but will never forget the passion with which he delivered it. He was spellbinding!”
Theology teacher and former principal Peter Corrigan ’69 wrote: “I have known Fr. Jim O’Reilly (or JOR as he signed his notes) since my days as a student...in the 1960’s when he served as a counselor and religion teacher. Our paths crossed again in the 2000’s as we would get together twice a year as administrators of Jesuit-sponsored high schools in the Detroit Province. Over these 50 years, my impressions of Jim did not change. He was one of the most transparently holy men whom I have ever known.”
Fr. O’Reilly celebrated the marriage of math teachers Tony and Jean Antonelli 40 years ago. When Jean visited Colombiere last April, she asked Fr. O’Reilly if he remembered their wedding. He responded in the affirmative, recalling the Mass at St. Wendelin and the plethora of roses the young couple had decorating the church that winter day.
After news of Fr. O’Reilly’s passing was announced other alumni shared sentiments on Facebook.
“Father O’Reilly was one of the early influencers in my life. His dedication to service and his Sodality projects throughout the city of Cleveland were important experiences for me. I will always cherish having known Fr. O’Reilly. He is now with God.”
“He did a lot to keep my faith alive. I can still see him around 1979 giving a homily in which he described (and acted out) a fightin' mad Christ driving the money changers out of the Temple with a whip.”
Since 2015, Fr. O'Reilly had been living at Colombiere Center alongside many other former Saint Ignatius teachers and administrators, including the late Fr. Bernie Streicher, Fr. Jim Lewis, Fr. John Libens, Fr. Frank Canfield and Fr. Bob Welsh '54.
Colombiere held a vigil service on January 9 and a memorial service on January 10. A memorial Mass will be held at Saint Ignatius on Sunday, January 28, at 10 a.m. in St. Mary of the Assumption Chapel, with a short social to follow in the narthex.
May Fr. O'Reilly's soul and all the souls of the faithfully departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
Science teachers Ed Nolan and Tom Bogen with Fr. O'Reilly in 2016. Both faculty members are recipients of a teaching award named for Fr. O'Reilly.
If you would like to make a memorial contribution in honor of Fr. O'Reilly, you can support the Rev. James E. O'Reilly, S.J. Scholarship HERE.