Neil O'Connell at the Quick Center on the St. Bonaventure campus, in front of a display of past SBU presidents. (Photo courtesy of Elena Robellard)

For Retiree Neil O’Connell, Firetrucks, Friars – and a “Bing” on Head – Began Five Decades of Education Ministry

Stephen Mangione Friar News

This article is part of a series of profiles about the Province’s retired friars. It features what they are doing now, a look back at their ministerial lives as friars, and how, even in retirement, they are making a difference in their communities through their activities and interests. The previous article featured Paul Osborne, OFM.

Neil O’Connell, OFM. (Photo from the HNP archives)

ALLEGANY, N.Y.Although fighting fires sounded intriguing, as it might for many children, ironically it was a firehouse that turned out to be the training ground and introduction to Franciscan values long before Holy Name Province and a religious vocation became a blip on the radar for Neil O’Connell, OFM. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, the native of South Buffalo, New York, watched how his father – a firefighter – and mother, a grade school teacher, led efforts in the community to raise funds for local families that had fallen on hard times and whose homes were torn apart by fire. The compassion and outreach to the marginalized witnessed as an impressionable youngster followed him – or maybe it drove him – to vocation with a religious order molded by these same ideals.

When vocation came knocking, the flashing lights and blaring sirens of the firetrucks – and getting to play pretend fire chief behind the wheel of a rig on the days his father would bring him to work – were no match for what Neil calls “a bing” on the head by the Holy Spirit. It was the friars at his Buffalo high school that drew him to the Franciscan charism and HNP.

With more than 60 years since making his first profession as a friar in July 1958, and after a long journey in education ministry, Neil now lives in retirement at St. Elizabeth Motherhouse – the residence for elderly members of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany located across the highway from St. Bonaventure University.

Neil O’Connell with Sr. Helen Lodge at St. Elizabeth Motherhouse. (Photo courtesy of Sr. Mary Lou Lafferty, OSF)

“The friars were fun to be with when I was in high school. They were always so joyful and caring in the classroom,” Neil recalled during a FaceTime conversation arranged with the help of Sr. Mary Lou Lafferty, OSF, local minister at the motherhouse.

Although he strongly considered following in the footsteps of his father as a public servant, the Franciscan influence at Timon High School pulled him toward a different service vocation, according to Neil, who reminisced about a happy childhood rooted in faith and family – from big gatherings with relatives, “where there was always a lot of dancing,” to altar-serving at his parish church of St. Ambrose and having conversations with the nuns and diocesan priests every Sunday after Mass.

His high school experience not only led him to vocation with Holy Name Province, but the teaching style of the friars – and, to some extent, the influence of his mother spending her life in service as an educator – ultimately shaped his own calling to the education ministry.

“I thought about becoming a fireman like my father, but I decided not to follow that path,” said Neil. Instead, he blazed his own trail – and quite an accomplished trail it has been.

More Than Moments in Time
After ordination to the priesthood in 1964 and a brief assignment at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts, he served three years as an instructor at the Province’s St. Francis College in Rye Beach, New Hampshire. In 1967, Neil began what would be five decades in higher education ministry, serving in a number of roles – from history professor, campus minister and university president, to history department chair, dean of faculty, and director of humanities and fine arts – at more than a half-dozen institutions in Georgia, Texas, Tennessee and New York.

Neil O’Connell in a festive moment at the motherhouse. (Photo courtesy of Sr. Mary Lou Lafferty, OSF)

His list of degrees is lengthy: a Ph.D. in history from the University of Georgia in Athens, a doctorate in sacred theology from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., a master’s degree in history from Siena College in Loudonville, New York, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy/classics from St. Bonaventure University.

Although American and world history were among the academic courses that he enjoyed teaching most, it wasn’t just the subject matter that inspired him in the classroom.

“History has a flow to it, and that’s what makes it such an interesting and captivating subject,” said Neil, who prior to his first profession attended St. Joseph’s Seminary in Callicoon, New York.

For this history buff, it was more than teaching about moments in time. “I didn’t just teach history. I integrated other aspects – culture, art, music, literature – to whatever history time-line I was teaching,” explained Neil. For example, he incorporated significant figures from other disciplines – like Mozart and Michelangelo – into lectures that fit the historical periods.

“I loved teaching young people about the history of the world,” said Neil, who professed his solemn vows in 1961 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1964.

Teacher Sometimes the Student
Although he was the professor, Neil said that he often learned from his students. In particular, he recalled the lessons in fraternity that he learned in the African-American community during his eight years (1972 to 1980) at Fisk University/Meharry Medical College – historically Black educational institutions in Nashville, Tennessee, where he served in different capacities, including campus minister, associate professor and history chair, and director of humanities and fine arts. He also ministered to one of the fraternities.

“It was a wonderful group to be with – a very welcoming community of strong faith. They took care of one another. During our ministry meetings, we would dance and sing in prayer – well, they would sing and dance, I would just sway to the music and prayer,” said Neil.

Neil in New York City after his appointment as president of SBU in 1990. (Photo courtesy of Mary Ellen Ash)

“For many students, it was their first spiritual encounter with a Catholic priest, but they were very open,” added Neil, who noted that his experience and connection to the students at Fisk/Meharry was one of the most rewarding aspects of the many years he spent in campus ministry – which additionally included service from 2008 to mid-2016 at Manhattan Community College and Lehman College in the Bronx, N.Y., the latter where he also was a history professor and faculty advisor.

While working at this pair of New York colleges, Neil also served as director of religious education at St. Joseph of the Holy Family Church on 125th Street in Harlem, helping to shape the faith of adolescent children – a change from teaching young adults in college.

Among his other education ministry assignments were as an adjunct professor of history for nine years (1993 to 2002) at Marymount-Manhattan College in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, and before that at Texas A&M University (1971 to 1980) and the University of Georgia in Athens (1967 to 1970). Neil also served in parish ministry as pastor and friary guardian at St. Stephen of Hungary Church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan when he was teaching at Marymount-Manhattan College.

One of Neil’s proudest moments as a friar was his appointment as the 18th president of St. Bonaventure University. It was during these three years, from 1990 to 1993, at SBU – where he also was a history professor – that Neil had the opportunity to collaborate in ministry with the Sisters of Allegany. It was a homecoming at the time because he was just 75 miles south of where he grew up in Buffalo.

Neil, being welcomed with friars from SBU when he moved into the Allegany sisters’ motherhouse last year. (Photo courtesy of Sr. Mary Lou Lafferty, OSF)

Welcomed to the Motherhouse
His memories of the kindness and Franciscan spirituality of the Allegany sisters – and the close proximity to his childhood home – prompted him to request a move to the motherhouse last year after living for three years at St. Anthony Friary, the Province retirement house in St. Petersburg, Florida. He had retired in 2016.

The sisters made an exception and, for the first time in the community’s history, accepted into the motherhouse a retired senior friar as a resident. The Franciscan Sisters of Allegany and the friars of Holy Name Province have had a longstanding ministerial connection, working together for decades in parishes and schools and collaborating in other ministries, according to Sr. Mary Lou, which made HNP’s request on behalf of Neil an easy decision.

“The sisters were glad to welcome Fr. Neil. He has fit into the fabric of the motherhouse community, always cheerful and happy to join in our many social activities and events. The residents and staff enjoy his dry humor and gentle, unassuming manner,” said Sr. Mary Lou.

When he arrived at the St. Elizabeth Motherhouse in June 2019, Neil was greeted by an unexpected welcoming party – the friars of the SBU community. Sr. Mary Lou said it was a wonderful and genuine act of Franciscan fraternity. “The friars were happy to see Neil – but he was even more happy to see them,” she said.

A few months after his arrival and second homecoming to Allegany, the sisters put Neil to “work.” They invited local families and staff members to bring their domestic pets to the residence on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi for the Franciscan tradition of the blessing of the animals. Neil enthusiastically responded to this ministerial opportunity, delighting in his interactions with community residents – and the animals, too!

Fraternal Joy
Neil’s days begin with prayer and attending morning Mass celebrated in the motherhouse chapel by a friar from the SBU community. Although he isn’t a concelebrant, it is a touching scene to watch him – while sitting among the congregation – raise his hands during the consecration, as if elevating the bread and wine, according to Sr. Mary Lou.

Neil O’Connell presents Iona Samuels with Francis Medal in 2013. (Photo courtesy of HNP Photo Archives)

Neil stays current on national and global news by tuning in to CNN daily, and he spends part of his day reading – although not as much as he did in the past. “Reading teaches you a lot. You never stop learning,” he said.

The octogenarian also can’t get enough of fraternity. “Being with my brothers brings great joy,” said Neil, who is visited frequently by the SBU friar contingent, among them David Blake, OFM, Gregory Jakubowicz, OFM, Dominic Monti, OFM, Russel Murray, OFM, Xavier Seubert, OFM, and Angel Vázquez, OFM.

“Neil is extremely pleased with the care and ambience at St. Elizabeth Motherhouse.  He is very happy there,” said Xavier, guardian of the SBU friary.  “He has a huge captive audience in the Allegany sisters, who seem delighted to listen to his historical discourses and provincial anecdotes.  But he would love it if other friars in need of care decided to go there.”

Ironically, some of the friars who visit – and with whom he reminisces and shares joyous memories – were once Neil’s students when he taught at Christ the King Seminary.

Asked what advice he would give to someone contemplating a Franciscan vocation with Holy Name Province, Neil didn’t hesitate. “Just do it!” he said, borrowing the slogan of a well-known athletic footwear brand.

While Neil relished education ministry in the south, he said it was tough to identify his favorite assignment.

“I immersed myself in whatever I did – but that’s what we are called to do as friars. That’s a unique aspect of Holy Name Province. We are given the freedom to fully immerse ourselves in our ministries,” said Neil, adding, “Regardless of where I was serving in ministry, I loved being with the people – and I loved being a Franciscan friar. I still do.”

— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.

Editor’s note: Friars who have been featured in past installments of this retiree series include Peter AhlheimOFMEd Flanagan, OFMTom Jones, OFM, and Ignatius Smith, OFM. Others can be found in the HNP Today section of the Provincial website.