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St. Patrick's Day Parade in Savannah- 2009 Grand Marshal
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The year was 1970. Christopher Laird was grand marshal.

And, from the steps of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, a newly ordained Catholic priest - just six months from his native Ireland - watched in amazement.

"I'd never in my life seen anything like it," he said recently. "And I couldn't - in my wildest dreams - imagine where I would be today."

Fast forward to a Tuesday 39 years later and you'll find Father Patrick John O'Brien back on the steps of the cathedral.

But this year, he'll be receiving the traditional blessing from Bishop Kevin Boland before he steps off to lead the 2009 St. Patrick's Day Parade as its grand marshal.

A compassion-driven workaholic

It's an honor befitting O'Brien's nearly 40 years of service to the Savannah community, said Curtis Carver, whose friendship with the priest spans more than 30 years.

Carver described the priest as "a workaholic driven by his love for people and a deep sense of compassion."

"Before he retired last year, a typical day for Pat would begin about 5:30 a.m. and end somewhere around 10:30 or 11 at night," Carver said.

O'Brien would often start by taking communion to the elderly or shut-ins before returning to church for morning Mass. Then he'd head to the hospitals.

"If you're in the hospital and he knows you, he'll be there," Carver said. "It makes no difference what denomination you are. There have been times that he's been there before the patient's own pastor."

If he isn't at a hospital, you might find him at the Chatham County Sheriff's Department, where he's been the chaplain for decades.

"He came to me more than 30 years ago, a young priest who wanted to help out as a chaplain," said Sheriff Al St Lawrence.

"He took to it like a duck to water. And he's been there for us ever since - whenever we needed him, no matter what the time.

"Law enforcement folks see more than their share of stress and tragedy," St Lawrence said. "Whether it's losing an officer in the line of duty or dealing with a family that's lost a loved one in an accident, Father Pat's there to help us.

"Our employees consider him family. They come to him for help with personal problems before they come to me. And he always has time for them.

"I don't know what I'd do without him."

Still going strong

Although he retired in June, O'Brien hasn't slowed down much, despite a chronic back condition.

"He has always kept incredible hours - no priest works harder than he does," said Dr. Keith Kirby, a parishioner, physician and friend who has watched him push through the pain of a bad back to be there for those who needed him.

"It would never occur to him to put himself first," Kirby said. "He's the kindest, most humble person I know.

"There aren't many like him."

Indeed, there is still relatively little down time on O'Brien's schedule.

If he's not at St. Vincent's Academy, where he is a part-time counselor, he's working at St. Mary's Home, the Catholic diocese's youth shelter on Victory Drive, where he serves on the board.

"His major concerns have always been the elderly, the poor and the youth of our community," Carver said. "He has an incredible rapport with young people, many of whom continue to stay in touch with him long after they graduate."

For now, his days are more than filled with his new duties as parade grand marshal. But not so much that he hasn't taken the time to reflect on what he hopes this year's celebration will bring.

"The St. Patrick's Day Parade Committee and the people of this diocese have worked really hard to make sure the day is one that's centered on family and God," he said.

With St. Patrick's falling on a Tuesday this year and economic conditions more uncertain, the 67-year-old O'Brien may get his wish.

"Too often, people think it's the local Irish community drinking and reveling and causing all the commotion on River Street, but that's a misconception.

"If you want to see the real heart of St. Patrick's in Savannah, look to the Celtic Cross ceremony in Emmet Park the Sunday before," he said. "Look to the cathedral the day of - where it's always been standing room only - and the squares along the parade route, where Savannah families have gathered for generations.

"That's St. Patrick's Day in Savannah."

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