Maurice Regis O’Neill, CM, SVC 1974-86
1914 - 1986
It is not easy to do justice to a priest who had such an extraordinary influence over people. My first recollection of Maurice was as a student in St Joseph’s, Blackrock. He was more mature than the rest of us and physically a mountain of a man. He was often seen in the company of Con Curtin and Derry Sweeney. In size they had little in common but we had no doubt about it that they were characters and had much humour in common. They annoyed me and some others in July in Castleknock where the students were on holiday. After lunch we joined the line sometimes asking the Director for permission to go to Dublin, which was not easy to get, though it was quite easy to get down to the Liffey for a swim. Maurice and the boys got permission to go to Dublin — at least he so pretended — and coming away he said in the hearing of us all, rubbing his hands in glee “Con, hurry up, that bus to Dublin is at two o’clock.” In a few moments there was Maurice and the other two boys marching out the front avenue with coats and umbrellas giving us the impression they were bound for the City. They went no further than a few hundred yards into Phoenix Park!
After ordination in 1943 Maurice was posted to Lanark where he spent the next fourteen years giving missions and retreats in Scotland, England and Ireland. A successful missioner, he spoke straight from the shoulder. Blessed with a powerful voice, a photographic memory, a clear mind and a compellng presence he made a deep impression on the people. When not giving missions he was busy visiting the Douglas area of the parish, some twelve miles south-west of Lanark. Forty years later he is still remembered and loved by the people of Douglas.
Another special interest of his was Smyllum — the children and the school. He impressed children and teachers alike so much so that they said he was the priest who did most for Smyllum children; today we would call them in-care children. He got close to them, spoke their language, was a familiar sight, a giant outside the school surrounded by children full of the joys of living. They loved him, he made them laugh, this handsome priest who took such an interest in them. To them he was Gregory Peck or Victor Mature; (in Dunstable he was Noel Purcell). Smyllum girls adored him and no wonder with words such as “Sweetheart, what is it today?” they flocked to Confession to Maurice. The great man had wide interests. During the war there were 9,000 Poles in Douglas, part of the Free Polish Army. They had their own Chaplains but Maurice visited them learning their language. In Thankerton, eight miles outside Lanark, he made friends with another group, the Italian prisoners of war and had them singing at the Midnight Mass one Christmas.
There is no doubt that Maurice was an outstanding figure in Lanark and so nobody was surprised when he was sent to Dunstable in September 1957 as Parish Priest of St Mary’s, the parish the Spanish Vins very kindly handed over to us. What a lasting impression he made on that parish! The 600 Mass-going population soon became 2,000 necessitating the building of that beautiful magnificent round church of which the parishioners are so proud and often refer to as “Fr O’Neill’s church”. He also provided the people of Houghton Regis, the new town two miles north east of Dunstable, with a large Church Hall. On Sundays it was a church, on weekdays it was used for Catechism classes. Maurice was very conscious of the lack of a Catholic school so he put on Religious Lessons for the children. He was a master at handling children and immediately had a Children’s Mass with a Children’s Choir each Sunday. He had seen such a mass while on a mission in Middlesbrough Cathedral conducted by Canon Sullivan. While Mass was said in Latin at the altar Maurice was down in the aisle with the children using Fr Harry Morrin’s Children’s Mass Book. He held those children and parents spell-bound.
At that mass and at all masses he drove home to parents and children the necessity of Sunday School. By dint of Sunday Notices and announcing the numbers attending each Sunday he built up the numbers to over 400 children. This meant using every available space in the Church, the sacristy, the Presbytery, the Hall, also the Priory School, a big school in Dunstable which Maurice hoped to acquire for a Catholic School. He organised an army of teachers including Loreto Sisters and some of their teachers from St Alban’s, also Brothers of the Sacred Heart who at that time had a house in Dunstable.
Another stroke of genius was the way he met all the Head Teachers in the local schools and opened the way for the priests to go into every school at least once a week and have a class with the Catholic children. He went further and even got Catholic teachers on the staff of two schools. What an organiser! What a diplomat! One headmaster took a full course of instruction in the Catholic Faith.
Maurice had only one Vincentian curate in my time; that was enough for him! But he managed to get a secular priest, Joe Nolan, chaplain to the men building the Ml and part time curate in the parish. Maurice was very much at ease in the company of the great, bishops, professional types, etc, but I remember one occasion when it was not so. Another priest, chaplain to the Irish, was arriving at Heathrow. Maurice the genial host invited him to Dunstable to meet Joe Nolan. At that meal Maurice had little or nothing to say for once, he was so overpowered by the new priest arriving from Ireland. That priest was Eamonn Casey, now Bishop of Galway.
For fear of canonising Maurice so soon, he had one addiction; he was addicted to strong black tea, a cup every hour from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. when he retired with his last cup and a tablet for his migraine. Two questions I never got an answer to: 1, How did he pass his Driving Test in Lanark? 2, How did the Dominicans miss such a character, and he from Newbridge?
Whatever the answer to No. 2 the Dominicans asked Maurice back to give their priests’ retreat. He was also asked by the Bishop of Northampton to give his priests a retreat.
Maurice had many talents—gifts of nature and grace and he used them for the salvation of souls. May the Good Lord reward him now.
MAURICE REGIS O’NEILL, C.M.
Born: Newbridge, Co. Kildare, 7 June 1914.
Entered the Congregation: 17 October 1936.
Final vows: 18 October 1938.
Ordained a priest in Clonliffe College by Dr McQuaid, Archbishop of
Dublin, 30 May 1943.
1943-1957 St Mary’s, Lanark.
1957-1965 St Mary’s, Dunstable.
1965-1966 St Peter’s, Phibsboro.
1966-1972 St Cedd’s, Goodmayes.
1972-1974 293 Waldegrave Road.
1974-1986 St Vincent’s, Castleknock.
Died 5 July 1986.