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Société des Missions Africaines –Province d'Irlande

O NEIL John né le 8 mars 1910 à Belfast
dans le diocèse de Down & Connor; Irlande
membre de la SMA le 1er juillet 1934
prêtre le 19 décembre 1937
décédé le 29 septembre 1963

1938-1944 missionnaire au vicariat du Bénin
1938-1944, vicariat du Bénin
Oshogbo, Ibadan
1945-1953, archidiocèse de Lagos
1953-1963 services divers selon sa santé
Ecosse, Floride, Nottingham, Belfast

décédé à Belfast, Irlande, le 29 septembre 1963,
à l'âge de 53 ans


Father John Fitzpatrick O'Neill (1910 - 1963)

John Fitzpatrick O'Neill was born on the Antrim Road, Belfast, in St. Patrick's parish, in the diocese of Down and Connor, on 8 March 1910. He died in Belfast, on 29 September 1963.

John (known as ‘Séan’ in his family and affectionately as ‘Johnny Pa’ in the Society) was third-born in a family of six children. His father was a well-known Belfast undertaker who traded under the name of O’Neill and McCann, Donegall Street. During John’s infancy the family moved from the Antrim Road to Donegall Street, both in St. Patrick’s parish. Then, during the Belfast Blitz their house and all their possessions were destroyed and the family was re-housed at 4 Linden Garden’s Cliftonville Road. St. Patrick’s was an illustrious parish giving many priests to the missions – nineteen were to join the SMA. John’s vocation grew out of his acquaintance with such missionaries. He studied with the Jesuits at Mungret college, Co Limerick (1926 1930), matriculating in 1929 and taking his leaving certificate in 1930. He spent a short period in the Sacred Heart college, Ballinafad, Co Mayo and St. Joseph's college, Wilton, Cork (1931 32), before entering the Society's novitiate and house of philosophy at Kilcolgan, Co Galway. He studied theology in the major seminary, at Dromantine, Co Down, from 1934 1938. John became a member of the Society on 1 July 1934 and was ordained a priest by Bishop Edward Mulhern of Dromore diocese, at St. Colman's cathedral, Newry, on 19 December 1937. He was one of a group of fifteen ordained on that day.

After ordination John was appointed to the vicariate of the Bight of Benin, in southwestern Nigeria. He set sail for the vicariate in October 1938, the very month that the vicar apostolic, Bishop Francis O'Rourke died in Lagos. John was to serve in the vicariate (created the archdiocese of Lagos in 1950) until he was invalided home in 1953. During these years, under the leadership of Leo Hale Taylor who succeeded Bishop O'Rourke, he worked in many parts of the jurisdiction. His first appointment was to the district of Oshogbo, where the superior was Pat McKay. Founded under the patronage of St. Benedict, the principal station of Oshogbo and its twenty secondary stations, had a Catholic community of almost 3,000 members and 500 catechumens. There were 13 Catholic marriages in the year that John came to Oshogbo.

In January 1940 John was assigned to Ibadan district. The principal station of Ibadan, situated in the heart of Nigeria's largest indigenous town, had been founded in 1900. John Kilbey was superior when John took up his post, while a third Father in the house was James Ward, then supervisor of schools for the vicariate. Nearby was St. Theresa's inter-vicarial minor seminary, which was staffed by four missionaries. Such was the district of Ibadan in 1940; today it is an archdiocese. In 1942 John was appointed to the staff of St. Gregory's college, Lagos, Nigeria's first catholic secondary school, founded by Leo Taylor in 1928. In May 1943 the old Benin jurisdiction was divided and two separate jurisdictions erected, namely the vicariate of Ondo-Ilorin and the vicariate of Lagos. John was incorporated into the staff of the latter. John spent the last four months of his first tour of duty at Holy Cross mission in Lagos (the cathedral parish and oldest resident mission in Nigeria founded in 1880).

On his return home for his first leave, in May 1944, John’s ship was torpedoed off the Bay of Biscay but luckily all were rescued. When he returned to Nigeria, in July 1945, he was posted to Ibonwon district where Larry Dolan was superior. Established in Ijebu country in 1903, Ibonwon was the home of the Sisters of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, an indigenous congregation founded by Leo Taylor. John had special responsibility for the novitiate of this congregation which was also situated in Ibonwon. John went on his second home leave in August 1949, in poor health. It was January 1951 before he was able to return to his mission, taking up a posting at Holy Cross.

In January 1953 John was invalided home. Unable to travel alone he was accompanied by Bill Fegan and brought ashore by stretcher in Liverpool. He spent 13 weeks in the Tropical Disease Hospital in Liverpool before being considered fit enough to return to Ireland. A long period of recuperation was required which he spent in Blackrock Road. As his health improved he was able to move about. Soon he was able to engage in a little light office work. Then, as he grew stronger, he gathered a few able-bodied confreres, rigged up scaffolding and painted the long high staircase which was badly in need of attention. In October 1953 John was well enough to take up a substantial post, but unfit to return to the tropics. Accordingly he went to Dunkeld Diocese in Scotland where he worked in the parish ministry. However in July 1955 his health again broke down and for the remainder of his life he was confined to holding temporary appointments depending upon the state of his health which was gradually deteriorating. He spent a year in Florida, ministering in St. Augustine's diocese, also some time working in the diocese of Nottingham. He returned to Belfast in 1960 becoming assistant priest in St. Agnes’ Parish, and then chaplain to the Poor Clare Sisters on the Cliftonville Road, in Belfast. During these years he lived with his mother in Linden Gardens. It was at the entrance to the convent that he collapsed and died, meeting his Maker, as he would have wished, ‘in harness’.

John had an artistic temperament. He designed in the Celtic style his own chalice for ordination, having it made at Gills in Dublin. This later was given by John to an SMA priest setting out on his first tour of duty in the Argentine. John was a gifted musician and a lover of literature, a great exponent of the Irish language. He is still remembered well in the Donegal Gaeltacht where he spent many of his holidays.

He is buried in Wilton.