EDMONTON (CCN) — 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,” Smith said.
MacNeil, who led the Catholic community in 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.”
“A gentle giant has gone,” added Rev. Gregory Bittman, Auxiliary Bishop of Edmonton, who was ordained as a deacon, priest and bishop by MacNeil and was with him by his hospital bedside when he died.
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.
In 1984, as president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, he invited St. Pope John Paul II to his first visit to Canada in 1984, and escorted him on the Edmonton leg. But it was within the Edmonton archdiocese where MacNeil’s impact was felt the most.
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.
There are few Catholics in the Edmonton archdiocese who don’t have a connection with 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,” Bittman recalled.
MacNeil took particular pride in the Edmonton junior and senior 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,” 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 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,” 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. MacNeil even insisted upon inviting other faith leaders to the prayer service that St. John Paul II led in Edmonton in 1984.
Security was an especially sensitive issue at the time, because the visit came after an assassination attempt on the pope. But MacNeil and the Holy Father made 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,” 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 Elk Island Park — alone among the trees, praying his rosary as he often did — became one of the most famous photos ever taken of the Pope John Paul II.
After retiring in 1999, 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.
A native of Nova Scotia, 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 him being buried in the Edmonton archdiocese.
Months before his death, MacNeil made those arrangements with Rev. Adam Lech, the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Edmonton.
“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.’ ”