Fr. Neil O’Connell, OFM

These days, Fr. Neil O’Connell, OFM, a 1960 graduate of St. Bonaventure University who also served as his alma mater’s president in the 1990s, splits his week as a Catholic campus minister at two colleges: one, Lehman College, is a four-year school; the other, Manhattan Community College, is a two-year school. Lehman is in the Bronx; the community college is in Manhattan. Lehman has a long history of ministry, whereas the ministry at Manhattan CC is still being developed.

But both campuses are related in that they don’t have a residential population. Their commuting students hold down jobs, have families and reflect the ethnic diversity of the region’s population. “The biggest challenge is to form a community of students who have such heavy personal things in their life. These people take a bus or subway to go to class. They drop their kids off at a child care center. They might come from work to go to campus, or go to work from campus. Trying to get a community of non-resident students is difficult,” he said.

However, “At both campuses I have very supportive Catholic staff,” he said. Fr. Neil served as St. Bonaventure’s president from 1990-1993. From 1993 until 2002, he served as the pastor of St. Stephen of Hungary Parish in New York. In 2002, he began his duties as campus minister and also as an administrator at All Saints Parish in Harlem.

As a campus minister, Neil helps the students mark religious holidays and assists with counseling and confirmation. And as the only denominational minister present on a regular basis on both campuses, he finds his greatest need is to be available to students, whether it’s for a one-on-one talk or to give the invocation at a sports banquet.

“With a commuter population, a lot of it is being present on campus,” he said. The parish in the northeast section of Harlem serves 250 families, has a talented gospel choir, contains a pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade school, and offers a food pantry and other outreach services.

And, like at St. Bonaventure — which celebrated the 145th year of its founding Oct. 4 — the All Saints community is now celebrating its 125th anniversary.

“You’re building on the shoulders of people who came before you, who sometimes broke barriers. Hopefully, you’ll do the same thing,” Neil said. He also said the parish has embraced the Franciscan presence. “There is a commitment that Franciscans should be in the Harlem community . . . The people have been very enthused with the Franciscan presence,” he said. He also enjoys connecting with former Bona students and faculty he runs into in New York. “I always enjoy meeting with alums who come to New York,” and welcomes contact from any who have an interest in working with children from the parish.

The Franciscan’s ties with Bona’s remain strong: He is working on a number of endowed scholarships to honor several family members, including his parents, brother, nephew and cousin.

A native of Buffalo, Neil was ordained as a Franciscan priest in 1964. He has found friars to be down-to earth, cheerful and practical, and yet having a spiritually centered life. Three avenues led him to the priesthood. Two were early influences by relatives who were priests: a German cousin, a member of the Society of the Divine Word, who served for 52 years in Ghana; and a first cousin, once removed, who was a monsignor and served as a campus minister at Northwestern University for 25 years.

“Both were influential,” Neil said, “because I went into education and campus ministry.” The third avenue was his wonderful experience as a student at Bishop Timon High School in Buffalo, staffed by friars of Holy Name Province. He decided during his senior year of high school that he wanted to go to the Franciscan seminary.

“I had very good, positive role models,” Neil said.

By Beth Eberth
from the winter BonAlumnus

—This essay was written in 2004 when Fr. Neil was serving at All Saints parish in Harlem. It appeared in the March 2004 issue of The Anthonian magazine.