Archbishop MacNeil at St. Joseph's Basilica in 2015Robert Bray Photo

Archbishop Joseph MacNeil: Humble shepherd, wise adviser and master story-teller had a common touch that inspired thousands

A holy man with a common touch, a socially conscious leader who inspired clergy and lay people alike, a man as comfortable with popes and priests as with students at his namesake high school, and a giant who leaves a lasting legacy – that’s how Emeritus Archbishop Joseph MacNeil is being remembered.

The beloved archbishop, who led the Catholic community in the Archdiocese of Edmonton for 26 years, died on Feb. 11 after suffering a stroke. He was 93.

“Archbishop MacNeil served the Church of God with great devotion throughout his 70 years as a priest and nearly 50 as a bishop,” Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith wrote in an online tribute Monday.

“He is rightly celebrated across the country as an attentive and caring shepherd of the people entrusted to his care, a distinguished churchman and servant of God, and a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. Here in Edmonton, while we experienced and were grateful for all of that, we came to know and love him as something more. He was our father, and, in his later years, our grandfather. That’s how we are mourning his death.”

Archbishop Smith described MacNeil as a master story-teller, “a true friend and reliable confidante, always ready to listen and offer advice, quite often over some very fine scotch.” He also had an uncanny ability to remember people’s names, home towns, family backgrounds and professions.

“There was more to this than just an excellent natural memory. Jesus named as the essential quality of a shepherd the knowledge he must have of his sheep (cf. John 10:14). The Archbishop took this to heart. We knew that he knew us, and, knowing us, loved us. We loved him in return, and delighted in what we were privileged to know of him.”

“He was our father, and, in his later years, our grandfather. That’s how we are mourning his death.”

Friends, colleagues and fellow priests say MacNeil will be remembered most for his humble leadership.

During his tenure, the archbishop increased the role of lay people in the Church and focused on making them an integral part of the Church. He expanded their role in Catholic institutions ‑  including Newman Theological College, St. Joseph Seminary, and St. Joseph’s College ‑  and focused on social justice by creating a commission to address poverty, homelessness, labour rights and inequity, with an eye on his own working-class background in Nova Scotia.

And he did it all as a pastor with an iron-clad memory for detail, who enjoyed telling stories and meeting people at whatever stage they were in.

“He was very mindful and very thoughtful and considerate. So when he acted, or even sometimes when you talked to him to see what he would say, you could tell he was careful,” said Most Rev. Gregory Bittman, Auxiliary Bishop of Edmonton.

“It was never a flippant response, there was always substance to it. You knew that you weren’t just getting a sloppy joe; you were getting a real piece of prime rib. There’s a lot of stuff that he did that nobody knows. A lot of behind the scenes stuff that he was able to accomplish because of who he was. And it’s all good things.”

MacNeil inspired the creation of the Archdiocese Social Justice Commission, the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council and the Council for Women. He gave Spanish-speaking Catholics a home and the opportunity to worship in their own language at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, and later did the same for First Nations when he turned Sacred Heart Parish into the first aboriginal Catholic parish in Canada.

Notre Dame Sister Frances MacDougall, a former Newman Theological College professor, said MacNeil had “a great respect and reverence for the priests and at the same time he spent so much energy to advance the place of the laity of the Church.”

Kevin Carr, the first lay president of Newman Theological College, once described MacNeil as someone who brought out the best in others.

“I found him to be a shepherd in the true sense of the word, in that he would provide the guidance and the direction that was necessary,” Carr said. “But one of the things I found about Archbishop MacNeil is he empowered people to do the tasks that were assigned to them.”

The archbishop’s own brother, Father Malcolm MacNeil, said he was holy – but also humble.

“Very dedicated, and very self-effacing. He doesn’t want you to say all good things about him, that type of thing. He has the knowledge and wisdom of Job. A lot of people used to go to him and ask for his advice. His contribution was to people, and to priests,” said Father Malcolm, a retired priest in the Diocese of Halifax-Dartmouth.

“My brother got down to the people’s level. Don’t forget, he worked at the steel plant in summers during seminary, and I did the same thing … So he knew that type of individual. It wasn’t an upper class thing, these fellows were right down to earth.”

He studied at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, where he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1944 before deciding to enter the Halifax diocesan seminary. He was ordained as a priest on May 23, 1948, and spent the next seven years serving as assistant pastor in three Nova Scotia parishes.

MacNeil went on to obtain a Doctorate of Canon Law (J.C.D.) from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome and in 1959 was named administrator of the Diocese of Antigonish following the death of the bishop. He then served a short time as pastor of St. Ninian’s Cathedral in Antigonish before being asked to direct the Extension Department at St. Francis Xavier, a position he held for nine years. In 2015 the university honoured MacNeil by naming him to their alumni hall of honour.

He was appointed Bishop of Saint John in 1969 at the age of 45, and four years later was installed as Archbishop of Edmonton, on Sept. 5, 1973.

In his 26 years, he took to heart the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-1965 gathering that examined the Church in the modern world, by bringing more lay people in roles traditionally held by the clergy.

“I think he was a bishop who carried a strong pastoral vision and who supported and invited people to become part of that vision of Church,” said Bob McKeon, a professor at Newman Theological College who was hired by MacNeil to lead the Social Justice Commission in late 1970s.

“I think the real building of a post-Vatican II diocese will be his legacy. We’re talking the creation and life of a social justice office. It’s very much inviting the laity to assume responsibility in the Church.”

McKeon said the archbishop stressed the importance of working collaboratively and “not to panic if something goes wrong. In a sense, you work out of a basic trust and you support each other.”

MacNeil’s background was the Diocese of Antigonish, N.S., the historic heart of the social justice movement in Canada. And although the Social Justice Commission was shut down in the early 2000s, its outreach to the poor, the homeless and the marginalized has been taken over by other ministries.

“He had an intuitive sense that part of the ministry of the Catholic Church needs to include a social outreach and social justice dimension,” McKeon said. “It’s not something that you read in a book. It’s not something in a Church statement. It’s something that he had lived in Nova Scotia.”

Born the oldest of three children in Sydney, N.S., on April 15, 1924, MacNeil was named Joseph in honour of his uncle Joe who died in battle during the First World War. His childhood and youth were filled with sports, dances – and the occasional sibling rivalry.

“Joe looked after me a bit, you know, take me out for a sleigh ride and that sort of stuff. I used to say to him, ‘you used to take me out and dump me in the snow,’” Father Malcolm recalled with a grin. “A lot of the fights were between my sister and him – over who was going to look after me. There were regular fights, but nothing that sent him to hospital.”

Joseph MacNeil was a good student, and a high school teacher encouraged him to attend university and to seriously think about becoming a priest. Initially reluctant, the thought never left his mind.

He enrolled at St. Francis Xavier at a time when his professors, most of whom were priests, were actively involved in the struggle for workers’ rights and social equality.

MacNeil would later say he liked that, because it showed him that the priesthood was not just a sacramental vocation, but also a tool for social change.

Years later, when he was named Archbishop of Edmonton, he wasn’t too thrilled at first.

“With great regret and considerable reluctance I left Saint John,” MacNeil said in an interview with the Western Catholic Reporter, the newspaper of the Archdiocese.

Displaying the family’s sense of humour, his brother Malcolm cut the tension with his reaction. “Well, first it was, ‘Aren’t they making a mistake?’ But no, I knew that was going to happen.”

Archbishop MacNeil at St. Joseph's Basilica in EdmontonLincoln Ho

By all accounts MacNeil thrived in the Archdiocese. He would later say that a highlight of his episcopate was the 1984 visit of St. Pope John Paul II to Edmonton.

During his 26-year term MacNeil was known for his collaborative leadership and his ability to disarm people with his self-effacing humour, joking with friends that he thought he’d “confirmed almost every Catholic in the city of Edmonton and beyond.”

Rev. Patrick Baska, the pastor at St. Teresa’s Parish in Edmonton, was one of them. He was also the last seminarian to be ordained to the priesthood when MacNeil was still the archbishop in 1997. Father Baska recalls Archbishop MacNeil often acted instinctively.

Prior to entering the seminary, Baska met with Archbishop MacNeil at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Camrose in May 1992. It was “intimidating” for Baska, but as the meeting ended, the archbishop asked matter-of-factly, “Could you start in the fall?”

“That’s how he did his applications for the seminary,” Baska joked. “I said ‘Well, OK. That was how Archbishop MacNeil operated in some regard. Once he was sure, he just asked. He didn’t hesitate.”

Bishop David Motiuk of the Ukrainian Eparchy of Edmonton said MacNeil was a close friend and mentor for more than 30 years. They had dinner together and talked on the phone often.

They spent the last few years travelling together to Jasper for a Catholic school principals’ leadership academy. “We would solve all the world’s problems on the way there, and on the way back we’d create a few more for the next year,” Bishop Motiuk joked.

With Archbishop MacNeil “riding shotgun,” the two would often make a pit stop in Edson, at the same coffee shop or restaurant as the school principals. “Their eyes would light up” when they saw the archbishop.

Bishop Motiuk and Archbishop MacNeil shared a love of canon law and scotch. They would often go to the Chateau Louis for a scotch tasting events, where MacNeil would reminisce about his Scottish heritage.

On one occasion, the archbishop tried something different, Bishop Motiuk recalled.

“He was hilarious. He said ‘David, let’s go incognito, no clerics. Let’s go and enjoy.’ Well, you can’t take him anywhere incognito. Two-thirds of the crowd knew him and knew him by name, saying ‘Your Grace, good to see you!’”

Bishop Motiuk, along with Metropolitan Lawrence Huculak, who leads the Ukrainian Catholic rite in Canada, visited Archbishop MacNeil at Grey Nuns hospital the day before he died.

Even though he officially retired in 1999, Archbishop MacNeil continued to serve in many ways — from replacing Archbishop Richard Smith in official functions and doing Confirmations, to animating retreats and celebrating Mass at schools.

Despite his tall, imposing physical presence, McKeon said the archbishop was quick to disarm and interact with everyone he met – especially children.

“He was so popular among the students, especially the younger kids,” said David Andrews, the first principal of Archbishop MacNeil Junior High School in Edmonton, who recalled it was the archbishop himself who was at the front door welcoming visitors when his namesake school opened in 2003.

“He was very talkative with them, and they loved it when he came to visit. He always had a huge smile. He never really retired, I think. He was always very busy. For so many years, he was the face of the school.”

The school’s colours are the traditional blue and green MacNeil tartan in his honour, and students and staff would celebrate Archbishop MacNeil’s birthday each year on April 15. Even in retirement, the archbishop would attend if he could.

MacNeil would sometimes make impromptu visits to the school, and Andrews recalled that the archbishop would “come into the school and say ‘Where’s the boss?’ I said, ‘You are the boss. Your name is on the school and it’s never coming off!’”

Shortly after the school opened, Andrews recalled opening the school doors after hours so that Archbishop MacNeil could give his brother – Father Malcolm – a tour. Andrews has been a principal at six schools, but leading Archbishop MacNeil High is the highlight.

“It was as good as it could get,” Andrews said.

Sister Frances MacDougall, who led the archdiocesan synod in the mid-1990s, said MacNeil had a great personality, a good sense of humour and unparalleled attentiveness to people.

“He was a gift for all of us, whether you worked with him or met him on the street. I think in that way he was experienced by many as a father figure.”

Certainly that’s how he was seen by Bishop Bittman, who was ordained as a deacon, priest and later as bishop by MacNeil.

“It’s like the apprentice becomes the master, if you want to use Jedi language,” said Bittman.

“I still remember when I was pastor in Daysland and area, and he came to do Confirmations. So he stayed over at the rectory there, and I still remember the first day he came, and we just sat down and talked. It was like talking to your father. It just felt totally comfortable, just like family. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Their close relationship endured to the very end — Bishop Greg was at Archbishop MacNeil’s bedside as he passed on.

Father Mike McCaffery, the former archdiocesan chancellor, said MacNeil took to heart the tenets of the Second Vatican Council.

“I think he epitomized the kind of bishop that Vatican II talked about in their documents — that a bishop should be one that follows the Scriptures, respects his people, treats his people as creatures of God and listens to them,” McCaffery said.

“One of his greatest traits, I think, was that he always seemed to put people first. I always found him very respectful of people – it didn’t matter who they were or what they did, he treated them as God’s children.”

Read more memories of Emeritus Archbishop Joseph MacNeil on Archbishop Richard Smith’s blog