Rev. John O'Neill sets a record at his church

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Danielson - posted Tue., Jan. 3, 2012
The Rev. John O'Neill will celebrate his 50th anniversary on May 27, 2012. Photo by D. Coffey.
The Rev. John O'Neill will celebrate his 50th anniversary on May 27, 2012. Photo by D. Coffey.

The Rev. John O'Neill, pastor of St. James Church in Danielson, recently set the record as the longest-serving pastor of the 111-year-old church. The 76-year-old La Salette missionary broke the 20-year mark in December.

“It's unheard of that I would stay this long in one place,” O'Neill said. At the time of his appointment, he was the Provincial Superior of the Missionaries of La Salette.

“Here's the story,” he said. “We had a family meeting about where I would go. I went to my mother with the four or five names and she said, 'Go to St. James.' People must have liked me.”

That family meeting included his three sisters, who are all Sisters of Mercy. Sr. Mary O'Neill is the Pastoral Associate at St. Dunstan Parish in Glastonbury; Sr. Peggy O'Neill is Registrar at Mercy High School in Middletown; Sr. Ann O'Neill is Director of Religious Education at Mount Carmel Parish in Hamden.

In May, O'Neill will celebrate another milestone: his 50th anniversary of being a priest. At a time when most people his age are looking forward to retirement, O'Neill was given charge of two more churches. He and his staff are now responsible for Our Lady of LaSalette in Brooklyn, which has about 150 parishioners, and Our Lady of Lourdes in Hampton, with about 80 parishioners.

“It was a blessing,” O'Neill said. “I was able to keep Rev. Elson [Kattookkaran].” Kattookkaran is a La Salette Missionary from India. What began as an experiment several years ago has turned into what O'Neill calls his “farm system” - sports talk for bringing new priests to the church. To date, there have been four Indian priests who have served at St. James.

“I was on the provincial council,” O'Neill said, “and we had some Indian priests come to America. We took two as an experiment. One of them, Rev. Cyriac, told me about some nuns working at the St. Joseph Living Center in Willimantic. They had no place to live. It was my idea to use the convent.” The 32-room convent adjacent to the church was made ready for a contingent of nuns from the Sisters of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, an order from India.

“People love them,” O'Neill said. “They are doing good work. Listen, if you get a visit from a nun, and she brings communion and takes your blood pressure and talks and listen to you, you can't beat it. It's a win-win for everyone.”

O'Neill's easy-going manner belies his strong faith. “I had the best teachers,” he said, “my parents and siblings.” His brother Gene is the only one of five that didn't enter a religious order, but O'Neill credits him, and his father, with giving him some of the best advice ever. “You ask us anything and we say, 'No problem.' The school needs $400,000. No problem. Someone wants to start a food pantry? No problem. How does a small church run a big school? You tell me. It's called a miracle. You get a person with one talent who meets 10 more with one talent, then you've got a workforce.”

O'Neill's staff has been with him for 20 years: office manager Lucille Farrell and Sr. Doris Gamelin, Deacon Rene Barbeau, sacristans Rene and Dot Beausoleil, and Paul Grenon, who O'Neill refers to as Fr. Paul.

He shares duties with five other priests, four of whom are near or past retirement age: Rev. Sylva LeCours (91), Rev. Joseph Whalen (88), Rev. John Welch (79), Rev. Tom Sickler (62) and Rev. Elson Kattookkaran (32). “I always say most priests are retired with what we do,” joked O'Neill. “What do we do? If you like your work, it's not work.”

Each of them has his own unique story to share. Whalen came to priesthood late in life and now runs the Saint Raphael healing ministry. Welch is known for his homilies. LeCours brought thousands of new parishioners with him when the church he was at closed down.

Diocesan priests have served at St. James for years, making it a unique situation. Diocesan priests usually stay within a diocese. The Missionaries of La Salette, a religious community whose primary focus is reconciliation, can be found anywhere in the world.

O'Neill peppers his sermons with stories. He uses sports and family stories to get his messages across. At Christmas, he spoke about going into a store and seeing a sign that read: “Christmas spoken here.”

“The language used at Christmas is totally different,” O'Neill said. “It's about peace, joy, health, happiness. Only Christmas is spoken here at St. James.”

O'Neill already knows what he will say at his 50th anniversary celebration in May. “I'm blessed to be part of three families: the O'Neill's, the La Salette family, and the St. James family,” he said.

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