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Fr. George Winzenburg (left) and Fr. O’Leary (right) with Laree Pourier, teacher at Red Cloud Indian School, at a Jesuit event in 2016

By Bhavana Purighalla

Father James J. O’Leary, SJ, grew up in a household where religion was very important. Every guest was expected to join in saying the family rosary. Some of his friends would come after dinner just to avoid it! As a young man, medicine was his plan. Father O’Leary’s brother was a medical student, and his father was a doctor, so it seemed like a logical move for him. However, one day while dissecting a frog, he realized that something wasn’t right. This wasn’t his plan—he was meant to work for God.

Father O’Leary grew up learning about the Society of Jesus—his father donated every month—and he understood that he could give back and do what he loved at the same time. Just like medicine, a career with the Jesuits also ran in the family. Father O’Leary’s brother ended up leaving medical school to join the Society, too. Their family was supportive of the brothers and understood their vocations.

Father O’Leary entered the Society when he was 21 and has since served in various ways, including teaching and offering spiritual direction. Teaching helped form his Jesuit identity, and this identity guided his daily life and activities. At one point early on in his formation, Fr. O’Leary questioned his vocation. “I had the thought of leaving the Jesuits,” he says. But after teaching during his regency, he found clarity. “I came back because I loved teaching, and I loved giving back.”

Throughout his ministry Fr. O’Leary made an impact on the lives of many people, one of them being Fr. Al DiUlio, SJ. The two met when Fr. DiUlio was assistant principal at Campion High School, and Fr. O’Leary was the spiritual director for scholastics. They instantly connected, became great friends, and still speak frequently. The friends have been there for each other during hard times in life, such as the loss of family members. “Father O’Leary is an extraordinarily generous man, and he’s thoughtful and humorous. You can tell him anything and he will just sit and listen. He is completely trustworthy and a wonderful character,” Fr. DiUlio says.

In his free time, Fr. O’Leary enjoys watching sports, especially cheering for the Green Bay Packers. He also loves to travel. “It’s getting harder to travel now, but growing old is learning to let go of things,” he says. The advice, the support, and the kindness Fr. O’Leary has given to so many people over the years has had a lasting impact. It is clear to those who know him that Fr. O’Leary is a great man who has contributed greatly to the communities where he’s served.

Today he is missioned to St. Camillus Jesuit Community, where he prays for the Church and the Society. He says he is also glad to be able to reflect on his own life through prayer. And that reflection leads him to share the following advice: “Accept people as they are, and don’t change people. Listen to them; listen to their heart and mind.”


Bhavana Purighalla is a senior at Creighton University and a former intern for the USA Midwest Province Jesuits. After graduation, she will be working at Cerner in Kansas City.

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