St. Anthony program helps grieving parents cope

Developer Tom O’Brien can claim credit for helping to shape the city’s majestic skyline — but it’s a beloved junior

Developer Tom O’Brien can claim credit for helping to shape the city’s majestic skyline — but it’s a beloved junior member of his firm he turns to when it comes to big ­decisions.

“If I’m having an important meeting, I ask for her guidance and assistance on anything we’re doing,” O’Brien said of Marisol Liliana O’Brien, his daughter who died from a rare brain disease in 2008.

“I think about her every day. I pray to her often and talk to her quite a bit,” he said of the little girl, now forever 8 years old.

“She was an amazing child,” he said. “She was always happy and brought us tremendous joy. Her death left us in a terribly sad state.”

O’Brien sought comfort a few blocks away from his office, at St. Anthony Shrine in Downtown Crossing. O’Brien, 54, will be honored at a gala tonight at the Seaport Hotel by the friars with the Pope Francis Award for his philanthropic work. But the Franciscans, he said, deserve all the credit.

“The shrine saved us,” he said.

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One of Boston’s major developers — with a portfolio including Suffolk Downs, the 45-story Government Center Garage tower plan, the Bruins’ Warrior Ice Arena and mixed-used buildings in Brighton and soaring Waterside Place in the Seaport — O’Brien said the shrine was his refuge.

“The friars are always there. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” the Brown University and Suffolk Law School graduate said. “They serve anybody. The homeless, a business person, gay, straight, people questioning their faith.

“It’s what our faith is all about, but they live it every day,” he said. “They live above the store. It’s amazing.”

When his daughter died just a few short years after he and his wife, Patricia, adopted her as an infant from Guatemala, O’Brien felt adrift. As a married father of five, he needed to keep an even keel — but he found he couldn’t cope alone.

The friars of the shrine’s Emmaus Ministry for Grieving Parents brought O’Brien and his wife together with other parents struggling with the same feeling of loss. The name of the ministry refers to the Bible passage in which a risen Jesus Christ walked with two disciples on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the first Easter Sunday.

“The ministry allows parents to come into the shrine and share their journey. Their challenges, think about their lost children, and support each other,” O’Brien said. “It drew us together as a couple. We thought about our life, our faith and Marisol.”

He thought about Marisol when he launched his real estate company with two partners during the Great Recession in 2009 — naming The HYM Investment Group after his girl. HYM, he explained, stands for “Hold You Me.” It was his late daughter’s favorite saying as she struggled with “Vanishing White Matter Disease,” or Childhood Ataxia with Central Nervous System Hypomyelination, which destroys the brain’s white matter.

“Because of the disease, she would mix her words together,” but that never stopped her from wanting a hug, he said. His wife, Patricia, urged him to trust his heart and go with the name. “As difficult as those days were, there’s an aspect to it that helps you focus on your faith,” he said. “I try harder to appreciate life — the gifts I’ve been given. I see life a different way now.”

To make a donation to St. Anthony Shrine, go to: stanthonyshrine.org and click on “Make a Gift” or send a check payable to St. Anthony Shrine & Ministry Center, 100 Arch St., Boston, MA 02110.

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    Article St. Anthony program helps grieving parents cope compiled by www.bostonherald.com

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