O’Neil, Father Maurice Leo, S.S.

1999, November 27

Date of Birth: 1931, April 4

January 6, 2000

The Loma Prieta earthquake on October 17, 1989 began at 5:04 p.m., PDT and, according to official records, lasted 15 seconds. But in that quarter of a minute it caused the deaths of sixty-two persons, displaced more than twelve thousand and did six billion dollars’ worth of property damage. St. Joseph’s College, Mountain View, California, suffered no deaths in the community, although a telephone technician working in the tower was fatally injured.

The college, however, was damaged by Loma Prieta beyond any reasonable hope of repair. Most spectacular among the ruins was its landmark tower, lying in a tragic heap in the inner courtyard and burying forever a cactus garden that had been lovingly tended by Father Maurice O’Neil – a poignant symbol of the desolation which the quake produced in that fine priest’s heart.

Maurice had been associated with this site for twenty years, beginning with his service on the faculty of St. Joseph High School Seminary and eventually as its principal. When the high school closed in 1976, he joined the faculty of St. Patrick’s College, whose name had reverted to “St. Joseph’s” by the time of the earthquake.

For many students of that era, Father O’Neil and St. Joseph’s had become close to synonymous. Though he was an exacting teacher and a no-nonsense disciplinarian, he was widely admired for his grasp of the subjects that he taught, especially in the field of history. His many hobbies, such as cactus-gardening, intrigued the students; his dead-pan, wild exaggerations of the truth kept them guessing; and the always good-natured teasing that he administered to them was a constant source of amusement for him and for them. Above all, he was their friend and they knew it.

Probably his outstanding trait was his intense loyalty to the persons and institutions that were part of his life. Picture him, for example, revisiting the seminary building for weeks after the earthquake and, at great risk, trying to retrieve some of the treasures of the institution that had been housed there. So touching was his love for and loyalty to St. Joseph’s that he insisted for at least a short while after the quake that perhaps it might be feasible for the community to move back in after a “few” repairs. Conduct like this could be labeled stubbornness, and it was thus interpreted by some. But, if he was stubborn, this quality was but the shadow side of an immense sense of respect for the past.

Those who were associated with him in subsequent ministries have testified to how he became just as deeply loyal and attentive to these new communities as to those whom he served during his years at Mountain View. Eventually he went from seminary work into parish ministry, from which he had recently retired at the time of his death. A report of the gathering for his memorial Mass in Green Valley, Arizona, tells us:

Over three hundred attended the Mass, including eight priests. Many tears were shed there by people who obviously loved and respected him. In the reception after the Mass they testified to his being a pastoral priest of the first order, relating how very good he had been to the sick, visiting them frequently in the hospital and after they returned home. It was remarked that this represented a beautiful adaptation in the person of a priest who had spent such a large part of his life in an institutional setting.

Rooted in the sense of loyalty which was so characteristic of Father O’Neil were two deep interests of his, a love of antiques and a passion for travel.

His living quarters in the various locations where he worked and the house to which he finally retired were always filled with antique items of furniture which he cherished not for their monetary value but simply because they represented a past for which he had a deep respect. One of his prize possessions was his grandparents’ bed, which at some point in his life he had arranged to have shipped out from the East. Very appropriately it was from this bed that he went to God.

This good man’s love of old things was, in turn, undoubtedly one of the motives for his frequent journeys, mostly to the land of his ancestors and to various other parts of Europe. He visited Ireland four or five times. His other most frequent destination was Rome, which he loved deeply because of its ties to the classical past (the Latin language was another of his areas of instruction) as well as its being the mecca of Catholic Christianity. He made what turned out to be his final visit to the Eternal City scarcely two months before he died.

There is little doubt about Maurice’s Irish ancestry, since he was the child of an O’Neil (James) and an O’Brien (Mary), being one of five children born to the couple, Maurice’s day of birth was April 4, 1931. From boyhood his hometown of Madrid, New York, where he attended the local elementary and high school. From 1949 to 1953 he attended the college seminary of his diocese (Ogdensburg) and then went on to St. Mary’s Seminary, Baltimore, for theology. He was ordained in Ogdensburg as a priest of that diocese on May 19, 1972.

Maurice O’Neil came to St. Joseph’s highly recommended. A letter from his principal at Holy Family High School in Massina, for example, testified to how carefully he prepared for every class session. Others gave recommendations on the basis of how well he related to both faculty and students. All this was confirmed immediately and lastingly during his service to St. Joseph High School. Quite soon after his arrival he was named dean of students. Later he became principal of the high school and, still later, when he had moved on to the faculty of St. Patrick’s College, he was named vice-rector.

Eventually the college moved to a new site in Santa Clara but by the end of the school year 1990-1991 was forced to close for several reasons but principally because a shrinking enrollment was making it financially unfeasible to continue. It was at this point that the Society was invited to contribute personnel to the staff of St. John’s College Seminary in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Maurice was chosen for a teaching position there, along with two other Sulpicians. He remained on that faculty until he was due for a one-year sabbatical by the summer of 1993. In September of that year he enrolled in the sabbatical program at the Institute for Continuing Theological Education at the North American College in Rome. Following that he took up pastoral work in the Diocese of Tucson.

He served first as associate pastor of Our Lady of the Valley, Green Valley, Arizona and then as pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Wilcox, Arizona. In 1998 Maurice retired and returned to Green Valley to live in a cottage that he had purchased there and to assist part time in parish work.

Meanwhile, he had contracted leukemia, although he kept that fact from all but his closest relatives and friends. This was typical of a man who never wished to “bother” other people. The disease, however, made him progressively weaker and more gaunt, a fact that could not escape the notice of those who witnessed the process up close. It eventually became hard for him even to put his coat on or to remove it.

Death came for Father O’Neil in his sleep on November 27, 1999. Memorial Masses were offered for him in the areas of his ministry in Arizona. He lies buried in the O’Neil family plot in St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Brasher Falls, New York, near the hometown of his childhood. He is survived by his sister, Rita O’Neil and by his brother and sister-in-law, Robert and Eleanor O’Neil, all of Madrid, New York, and by four nieces, three nephews and three great-nephews.

Maurice, you worked hard and faithfully in the Lord’s vineyard. You made many friends and remained true to them. Many hundreds were indebted to you for contributing richly to their store of knowledge and to their training in how to live. We, your friends, thank you. We will not forget you and will keep you in our prayers. May you find rest in the embrace of the Lord whom you loved and served all your life with such great generosity. Amen.

John A. Ward, S.S.