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CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien extends traditional Catholic values to her children

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MILWAUKEE, Wis. (Catholic Herald) - Soledad O'Brien is smiling. Tapping away at her phone in the Henke Lounge of the Marquette University Alumni Memorial Union, O'Brien is seemingly unaware of her VIP status, focused on the task at hand -- scheduling a play date for her daughter.

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By Amy Guckeen
Catholic Herald (
3/12/2008 (1 decade ago)

Published in Living Faith

Between ear infections, reading the Boxcar Children series with her oldest daughter -- they're on book four, "Mystery Ranch," and keeping her 3-year-old twins from dousing themselves with pasta and butter at lunch, there is no typical day for the CNN anchor and special correspondent for "CNN: Special Investigations Unit." While for some a schedule as hectic as O'Brien's would lead to insanity, for O'Brien, it's what keeps her happy.

"One thing about a vocation is it's just right," O'Brien said. "You can't really articulate it but you know. I love telling stories. I absolutely love it."

With a resumé that touts a degree from Harvard, O'Brien has spent 20 years in journalism, reporting from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Thailand, covering Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba and keeping up with the presidential candidates. No stranger to tragedy, O'Brien's passion lies in sharing the difficult stories with the world.

"I remember when I was covering the tsunami I would go to bed after my show and I would call my husband and tell him about my day," said O'Brien, who saw body upon body of dead babies. "I would cry and cry and cry. Clearly, that's an indication you're trying to process something. But it's very hard for me to say, 'Oh, woe is me. Boy isn't this hard on me?' I get to go home. I'm fine. If Hurricane Katrina haunts me, what does it do to the people who had to walk through the water carrying their loved ones?"

O'Brien is able to fall back on her faith when times get rough. Growing up in St. James, N.Y., O'Brien, one of six children, is Catholic right down to her name -- Maria de la Soledad, or, Blessed Virgin Mary of Solitude.

"It was just so expected," O'Brien said. "My parents were very devout. Coming from a big Catholic family it's all tied together. It's kept us very close. It's one of those things we did together.

"I came from a very middle class-family. My parents valued kindness and goodness. Being on TV doesn't make you special. They taught me that some people are not better than others. If you're a good and kind person that's all that matters."

Building traditions and values

With four children of her own with husband Brad Raymond, Sofia, 7, Cecilia, 5, and twin boys, Charlie and Jackson, 3, O'Brien recognizes the importance of instilling the same message she received from her parents in her own children.

"As a parent, you realize, wow it's very important to have those traditions and values," O'Brien said. "I like a focus on service and faith in action. Let's not just sit here and pray about people; let's raise money. Let's build something."

While getting her brood to church and keeping them behaved in the pew during Mass is challenging enough, O'Brien is discovering that finding a church with an emphasis on faith doing justice in Sunday school is also not an easy task.

"It's challenging to find a church where my children can grow in their faith and do things other than let's just sit here and color pictures," said O'Brien, who takes a break from New York City life with her family on the weekends.

Ensuring her children know and practice faith in action, O'Brien involves them in her humanitarian efforts. In her spare time, O'Brien works with Hearts of Gold, which aims to enhance the lives of New York City's homeless mothers and their children, provides funding for a child to attend school in New Orleans, and continues to uncover injustices in the world through her reporting. At times, however, the volunteering and giving raise hard questions for O'Brien and her family.

While adopting a family this Christmas brought shrieks of joy from her daughter, who thought they would actually be welcoming a new family into their home, it also raised a larger issue, when upon delivering their presents, a child in the adopted family bluntly told Sofia that Santa didn't exist.

Why does Santa ignore some children and not others, O'Brien said Sofia asked her. For the ever-questioning O'Brien it was a question about which she had not thought.

"For a mom who's homeless, of course Santa doesn't exist," O'Brien said. "Her story is Santa is fake. Because if he does exist, why does Santa ignore them? Santa hates you."

For the O'Brien family, it was a time to talk about those less fortunate than themselves.

"There are a lot of people that don't have a lot of stuff," O'Brien explained to her children. "That doesn't make them any less of a person than us. We have a responsibility toward other people in the world."

Decorated humanitarian

Honored for her humanitarian efforts, O'Brien received the NAACP's President's Award, American Red Cross of Massachusetts Bay's 2007 Clara Barton Humanitarian Award and in April will receive the first Soledad O'Brien's Freedom's Voice Award, created in her honor by Community Voices at the Morehouse School of Medicine, for her ability and perseverance to be a voice for the voiceless.

"I love doing stories about people," O'Brien said. "You can get in, get people's story, and get the message out. I'm just a practical person. I'm a doer. I don't really intend to be a humanitarian."

That mentality is what brought O'Brien to Marquette for the university's annual Mission Week in early February. The week's keynote event, a panel on "War, Peace and People of Faith," saw O'Brien as moderator, in the role she does best, asking all the hard questions.

"She's a respected journalist," said Stephanie Russell, executive director of the Office of Mission and Identity for Marquette. "She's a woman of faith herself. She is known for her compassion and also intellect. As a Catholic, Jesuit university those are qualities that we are trying every day to help our students integrate."

The topic of the panel drew her to Marquette, said O'Brien.

"This is a very straight forward conversation, a blunt conversation," O'Brien said. "A lot of times a conversation like this is done with a lot of caveats -- you can't ask this and you can't talk about that. Marquette has been very forward. The topic is so intense. Who's good and who's bad? Can you be a good person in a bad situation? I don't know."


This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Catholic Herald (,official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wis.

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