Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 1, 2006
He served all humanity joyfully
Fr. John McNeil 85, died April 13
Fr. John McNeil
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
His experience as a military chaplain taught Father John McNeil an undying truth that, regardless of the diversity of cultures, a common goal lives.
"Peace on earth must not be dismissed as a pious dream," he said in 1968, while rector of St. Joseph's Cathedral. "There is an even greater necessity of finding peace today."
Part of his nearly 55 years as a priest was spent serving the United Nations peacekeeping forces in the Middle East and at home on the Royal Canadian Air Force base in Namao.
Following a brief illness, the man easily recognized by his youthful smile and passion for golf, died April 13 at the Royal Alexandra Hospital. McNeil was 85.
A great priest
"He was a great man; a great priest. He was unselfish and very generous helping others," said longtime friend Father Frank Stempfle, pastor of St. Patrick's Parish. The men met in 1946 as classmates at St. Joseph's Seminary.
"He had a great sense of humour. He easily saw the funny side in anything. This leaves a hole in my life."
McNeil was born into a large family living near Camrose. Into his 20s, he never thought of becoming a priest. But as a soldier in the Second World War, McNeil felt the call. He had no idea where it came from.
He paid a visit to the late Archbishop John McDonald. Standing in his uniform, McNeil told the archbishop he realized he should have entered the seminary. McDonald told him there was a war going on and that he had to finish that first. The archbishop said if it were a true calling, they would meet again.
After his release in 1945, he returned to the archbishop's office and never looked back. McNeil entered the seminary where he studied philosophy and theology. He was ordained June 7, 1952 by McDonald at St. Joseph's Cathedral. Following his ordination, McDonald appointed him a military chaplain.
"You spent five years in the war with the Canadian Air Forces, you will be a good man to tend their souls," the archbishop told him.
McNeil was posted to different military bases from 1953 to 1961. He was the first chaplain appointed to the United Nations Emergency Forces. Visiting and ministering to the UN peacekeeping troops from Naples, Italy, to the Sahara Desert was an experience McNeil always cherished.
He served as chancellor of the Edmonton Archdiocese, rector of the cathedral and pastor of several city parishes, including St. Michael-Resurrection, Assumption and St. Theresa parishes. In 1969 he was appointed director of the archdiocesan Catholic Women's League council.
"He was young and we were young and it was great," recalled Rose-Marie McCarthy, a CWL member since 1962.
"It was interesting because I don't think he had ever worked with a lot of women. I remember he came to us from the service and that he was worldly. He was always behind us; advising us."
McCarthy said McNeil attended every CWL meeting. She admired his energy. McNeil was mindful of current social issues - like drug use - and he suggested the women express their concerns publicly.
"Because of him, we had good spiritual programs. He had seen drug use overseas and I remember him talking about it."
McNeil stayed true to his preaching because after obtaining his master's degree in pastoral counselling, he worked at AADAC for several years, helping establish treatment programs that are in use today.
People living their lives as unencumbered as possible beat deeply in his heart. He used to shake his head at the myth that alcohol and drug abuse was exclusively an inner-city problem.
"Cocaine is expensive," he once said. "At $300, who do you think are the ones buying it?"
Margot Bilodeau, former vice chancellor and executive secretary to three archbishops, remembers McNeil as a person profoundly committed to the priesthood. Even in the last years of his life, McNeil remained available to assist on weekday and weekend ministries in parishes, usually at the last minute.
"I was the one who called the priests when there was an emergency and if he was not committed somewhere else, he was always ready to go wherever there was a need," Bilodeau said.
McNeil never tired of serving as a priest. "I'm one of the old timers," he told the WCR in 2002. "I put my collar on."