Alberta’s Catholic community is mourning a giant character in its storied history following the death of retired Archbishop Joseph MacNeil, a humble disciple with a unique ability to remember names, faces and details of the lives of thousands of people.
“Archbishop MacNeil, throughout his tenure here, was a larger-than-life kind of a figure and he was known far beyond the local Catholic community,” Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith told reporters and archdiocesan staff at a news conference on Feb. 12. “Wherever he was known, wherever he was encountered, he was always met with profound gratitude and respect for his person, for his integrity, for his ministry, for his dedication to people, for his dedication to the Church. His passing marks at the same time, I would say, the passing of an era.”
Archbishop MacNeil, who led the Archdiocese of Edmonton for 26 years, died on Feb. 11 at the Grey Nuns Hospital after suffering a stroke. He was 93.
“In those 26 years, obviously he was able to exercise a massive impact, an impact that we probably never will be able fully to measure, on the lives of many, many people and certainly in the life and the ministry of this Church,” said Smith.
“A gentle giant has gone,” added Most Rev. Gregory Bittman, Auxiliary Bishop of Edmonton, who was ordained as a deacon, priest and bishop by Archbishop MacNeil and was with him by his hospital bedside when he died.
“In my whole priesthood I have been surrounded by giants. So if you remember Gulliver’s Travels, I feel like I’m one of the people from Lilliput. I have been surrounded by giants, and Archbishop MacNeil was a giant, a giant as a bishop, a giant as a man, a giant as a father to everyone.”
Archbishop Smith was scheduled to celebrate a Mass for Archbishop MacNeil on Thursday, Feb. 15, at 12:05 p.m. in St. Joseph’s Basilica, followed by a public viewing until shortly before 7 p.m. Vigil prayers would follow, then the public viewing would continue from 8 until 9 p.m. The funeral Mass for Archbishop MacNeil was set for Friday, Feb. 16, at 12 noon at the Basilica, with the interment to follow at Holy Cross Cemetery in Edmonton.
Joseph MacNeil was born the oldest of three children in Sydney, N.S., on April 15, 1924, and he had made Alberta his home ever since he was installed as Archbishop of Edmonton on Sept. 5, 1973. During his term, he committed himself to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, empowering lay people in the Church, building friendships with other faith communities, and extending the Church’s efforts in social justice. In retirement, he continued his ministry with personal visits and retreats.
“The people of this Archdiocese are not just mourning the death of a former bishop. He was our father. He was very much also our grandfather,” Archbishop Smith said, pausing briefly as he collected his emotions at the loss of his brother bishop. “We knew him as such. We loved him as such. I knew him as a great friend, a real confidant … He was always ready with what was usually pretty exceptional scotch. I could talk to him and share some ideas and look at some issues.
“He leaves a legacy of a great memory, a memory of love and devotion, a memory that for us that resides not just in our minds but, I think, first and foremost within our hearts. That’s where his memory has really settled for all of us.”
There are few Catholics in the Edmonton Archdiocese who don’t have a connection with Archbishop MacNeil, either through a personal encounter or through the sacraments, especially Confirmation.
“He was a living history of this diocese. He loved to talk and he had many, many stories,” Bishop Bittman recalled.
Archbishop MacNeil took particular pride in the Edmonton junior high school named after him, which opened in 2003, and he loved visiting the students there.
“He was just a wonderful priest, a wonderful bishop with a great touch, especially close to young people,” Archbishop Smith said. “He was able to have that personal, direct touch with anybody with home he came into contact and it left a deep, deep impression.”
And if Archbishop MacNeil met you, it’s more than likely he remembered you years later.
“Probably the key standard of measure, in his episcopal role, that I find extraordinarily difficult to measure up to, is the way that he knew everybody,” Archbishop Smith said.
“He knew people. He remembered their names. He could tell you where they were from, probably the name of their pet, the names of their cousins. He knew them through and through. And people knew that and knew that because he knew then, he loved him.”
That facility to make friendships extended to people, and leaders, of other denominations and other faiths. Archbishop MacNeil even insisted upon inviting other faith leaders to the prayer service that St. John Paul II led when he visited Edmonton in 1984.
Security was an especially sensitive issue at the time, because the visit came after an assassination attempt on the Pope. But Archbishop MacNeil and the Holy Father made their own plans to visit Elk Island National Park, about 60 kilometres east of Edmonton, after a planned visit to Jasper fell through because of the weather.
“This was worked out between the Archbishop and the Pope; nobody else knew this,” Archbishop Smith said, recalling the story. “Security went crazy — ‘We can’t do this, nothing is secured’ — and the Archbishop looked at the head of security and said, ‘I don’t even think God knows that we’re going out to Elk Island! We’re going to be OK.’ And so off they went.”
In the end, a photo of St. John Paul II at the park — alone among the trees, praying his rosary as he often did — became one of the most famous photos ever taken of the Holy Father.
After retiring in 1999, Archbishop MacNeil didn’t seek the limelight but his ministry – leading retreats or making visits – continued unabated. In the last few months, he knew his time was short and he was preparing for his death.
Following a stroke, a constant vigil of priests, lay people and friends gathered by Archbishop MacNeil’s bedside. It was Bishop Bittman who chose the 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift on Feb. 11. A former nurse, he couldn’t help but check Archbishop MacNeil’s condition – which was good at the time – and his monitors, including his respirations, 16 per minute, which is considered normal. Bishop Bitman then prayed with him. At about 12:30 p.m., the Archbishop’s respirations slowed to about half or eight per minute.
“And then there long pauses, so I knew the end was coming,” Bishop Bittman said. “I stood by his beside and I had my hand on his shoulder. I pulled out some prayers to St. Joseph because St Joseph is the patron – in the Catholic tradition – for a good death.
“I was there praying, I looked at him and his eyes opened for just a moment. And you know, I saw the light in his eyes … and then I saw them grow dim, so then I knew he had passed from this world to the next.”
A native of Nova Scotia, Archbishop MacNeil said, in an interview shortly after his appointment to Edmonton, that he missed the Maritimes terribly. But after decades as archbishop, he was particular about being buried in Edmonton.
Months before his death, Archbishop MacNeil made those arrangements with Rev. Adam Lech, the chancellor of the Archdiocese.
“He said ‘Adam, you are the chancellor. You will bury me here. Here is my home. Don’t take my dead body anywhere. Here I will be buried.’”
In this video, Archbishop Emeritus Joseph MacNeil recollects Pope John Paul II’s 1984 visit to Elk Island National Park.