ANDERSON S.C. – Shortly after Aubrey McNeil, OFM, passed away in December 2017, a group of parishioners at St. Mary of the Angels began planning a lasting tribute to the beloved friar who had served as pastor of their parish for a dozen years.
Last month, their plans were realized when parishioners dedicated a new canticle garden in memory of Aubrey on the grounds of the church on White Street. Michael Jones, OFM, pastor, and Christopher Dunn, OFM, presided at the Oct. 24 blessing and dedication of the memorial garden. The ceremony was attended by parishioners, as well as members of local area faith communities, including Temple B’Nai Israel, Greater Anderson Interfaith Network, and Grace Episcopal Church.
Those involved say that every aspect of the dedication was fitting for the cherished friar, from the canticle garden to the presence of other faith communities – as well as the timing of the ceremony, which appropriately was held as the parish commemorates a milestone anniversary.
In each of his pastoral assignments, Aubrey was always surrounded by ethnic diversity – which he often said was important to the growth of parishes and to his personal and ministerial life. He also maintained a small garden during his years as pastor at St. Mary of the Angels – which inspired the new and expanded canticle garden in his memory.
Tribute to Pastor’s Interests and Compassion
“The plan for the garden took place right after [Aubrey’s death]. The parish formed a garden committee to look at the various possibilities,” Michael explained. “The new garden replaces the small garden that Aubrey had created over the years. We took [the existing] space and expanded [it] so that all parishioners could enjoy the garden.”
Although parishioners performed some of the preliminary work, the committee enlisted the support of Alex Williams, a student at nearby Clemson University, who worked with the group to devise a detailed schematic of the garden.
The new and expanded canticle garden includes a labyrinth, a peace pole, and 13 stepping-stones customized to depict St. Francis of Assisi and his “Canticle of the Sun” song.
“All of this creates a wonderful space for people to come and meditate and pray,” said Michael, who noted that the canticle garden would also be used to host parish functions.
The blessing and dedication ceremony gave parishioners the opportunity to share memories about the much-loved friar.
“Fr. Aubrey was a good listener and cared about everyone in the community of Anderson,” said Terry Czmyr, who served as coordinator of the garden committee. “He also loved his garden, where he would spend time praying, relaxing and preparing for [his Sunday homilies].”
Czmyr continued, “Since Fr. Aubrey always desired to share his garden with others, Fr. Mike wanted to expand the space to everyone. So we decided to build a larger garden. The canticle garden is a perfect tribute to Fr. Aubrey.
“It is a way for parishioners of St. Mary of the Angels, along with members of the interfaith community, to show their love for Fr. Aubrey,” she added.
Parish’s 75th Anniversary
St. Mary of the Angels Parish also happens to be in the midst of its 75th anniversary, commemorating its founding in 1943, when Francis Anthony Gorman, OFM, arrived in Anderson at the direction of Holy Name Province to establish a Catholic church for the African-American community. He was stationed in Anderson three times with various other friars serving as pastor, said Michael.
After its humble beginnings of three members and a rented house serving as the prayer and liturgical space, a larger church building was constructed in 1951 – with the help of a philanthropic gift from Julia Duffee, in memory of the Duffee/O’Donnell family – to accommodate the growing parishioner population. Another milestone came in 1994 with the completion of the Father Francis A. Gorman Center, which hosts parish meetings and events.
During its seven-and-a-half decades, St. Mary of the Angels and the Franciscan spirit has been vital to both Catholics and non-Catholics in the Anderson community through comprehensive outreach ministries that include vacation Bible school, aid to battered women and children, assistance to the homeless, tutorial programs for Hispanics, and collaboration with several local food distribution programs.
The parish is now the spiritual home to more than 400 families of multi-ethnic backgrounds – including African Americans, Caucasians and Latin American, Haitian, Filipino and Chinese immigrants. Francis was followed by David Hyman, OFM, who served as pastor until Aubrey succeeded him in 2005.
Aubrey, who worked in the health care profession as a registered nurse before entering the Franciscan Order, had always said that the time he spent as a physical healer made him well prepared for the spiritual healing he provided in his pastoral ministries – which included decades of service at the parishes of St. Francis of Assisi on 31st Street in Manhattan; Holy Cross in the Bronx, and St. Anthony of Padua in Camden, N.J., in addition to his service at St. Mary of the Angels.
Besides a growth in families to more than 400 while he was pastor at the South Carolina parish, Aubrey oversaw the construction and completion of a new church that was dedicated in 2008.
His ministerial philosophy was always to empower people to do things they never thought possible – and parishioners believe that the canticle garden in Aubrey’s memory will be an inspiration to the Anderson community.
“Fr. Aubrey loved nature. Seeing plants growing around his garden gave him great joy. He also loved humming birds and animals – especially the rescue dog, Rosie, he adopted from a local shelter,” said Maria Parker, a 24-year member of St. Mary of the Angels Parish who took the canine into her home after Aubrey’s passing.
“The new garden is a wonderful tribute to Fr. Aubrey because it offers peace and solace to all who visit] No doubt, all will leave feeling the blessings of Fr. Aubrey,” Parker said.
— Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y.
Editor’s note: Details about the history of St. Mary of the Angels Parish can be found in the Summer 2018 issue of The Anthonian which published a cover story titled “75 Years of Faith and Action.”
- “Franciscan Father Aubrey McNeil, Known for His Warmth and humor, Dies” – Dec. 12, 2017
- “Fr. Aubrey McNeil, a Franciscan Priest in Anderson, Has Died” – Dec 6, 2017, Anderson Independent Mail
- “Anderson Parish Celebrates Pastor’s Anniversary” – Nov. 2010, HNP Today
- “Spiritual and Physical Healing is Fr Aubrey McNeil’s Mission” – April 29, 2010, The Catholic Miscellany