Died 3 March 2018
Jesuit Father James W. O’Neil died at the age of 96 on March 3 2018, at Campion Center, Weston, Massachusetts. Fr. O’Neil was born on April 12, 1921, and entered the Society of Jesus on Dec. 2, 1947, at Shadowbrook, Lenox, Massachusetts. He was ordained to the priesthood on June 15, 1957, at Weston College in Weston. He pronounced his Final Vows on June 2, 1989, at Boston College High School. He was the oldest member of the province.
Fr. O’Neil was born in the Dorchester section of Boston, the oldest of four children of James and Margaret (Holland) O’Neil, both of whom had emigrated from Ireland. His father worked as a clerk in the Post Office; his mother worked in a shoe company as a young woman but after their marriage devoted herself to caring for their children. The family moved to the coastal town of Weymouth when Fr. O’Neil was a child, and he and his sisters went to Catholic schools and to the public high school there. In high school, Fr. O’Neil was placed in an all-boys section intended to steer students to mathematics and engineering.
After high school, he commuted to Bridgewater State Teachers’ College, where he concentrated on math. When he graduated, in June 1942, he enlisted in what was then the Army Air Corps and was assigned to airplane-mechanics school in Mississippi, where he focused on the special characteristics of the B-24 bomber. His unit moved from there to Texas, Michigan, Arizona, Utah, and California. During that time he became a clerk rather than an airplane mechanic and, subsequently, part of a training unit, so he never flew in a plane in his four years in the Air Corps. After his discharge, in 1946, he went to Boston College, intending to start his undergraduate years all over. The Jesuit dean of admissions thought otherwise, and Fr. O’Neil unexpectedly found himself admitted to the graduate school.
Fr. O’Neil had been thinking of a priestly vocation and it was at B.C. that he first met Jesuits, one of whom, Fr. Richard Shea, SJ, tutored him in Latin. He applied to the Society but was turned down, then subsequently accepted. He followed the usual course of studies, at Shadowbrook and Weston. For regency, he taught math and English at Cranwell Prep for a year and oversaw a student residence (1953-1954). Ordained a priest, in 1957, by Cardinal Richard Cushing, he followed theology studies with tertianship at Pomfret.
In 1959, he returned to Cranwell, where for 12 years he again taught math and English. In 1971, when Cranwell seemed likely to close, he was assigned to Boston City Hospital as an assistant chaplain on the team of Jesuits who ministered to Catholic patients. In 1973, the principal of Boston College High School, Fr. James C. O’Brien, SJ, proposed that Fr. O’Neil come there to teach. Province policy at the time required Fr. O’Neil to go through a “discernment” process. This meant visiting the other province high schools and discussing whether he might be a good fit for their faculties. Each time Fr. O’Neil was asked why he wanted to come to their school, he would reply, “Well, actually I’m thinking of going to B.C. High.” Eventually, the provincial agreed.
So, in 1974, Fr. O’Neil began the assignment that would last 44 years and end only a few weeks before his death. He joined a strong math department with some highly regarded Jesuit colleagues — Frs. John Whitney Sullivan, Willy Doyle, Fr. O’Neil Greenler, Ed Kelly. His field, of course, was math and much changed in that field over the years, including a “new math,” based on reasoning rather than memory, which required major changes in teaching styles. But he readily adapted to the change. He taught honors sections and spent several summers teaching the new math at the Shadowbrook juniorate. He spent long hours tutoring students who needed help, so much so that, in 1992, he was asked to leave classroom teaching and work in a program run by his Jesuit colleague Fr. Joe Bennett, tutoring and overseeing the honors students who were in turn tutoring their fellow students. Generations of students fondly remembered the help Fr. O’Neil gave them.
Fr. O’Neil’s years of high-school teaching spanned major shifts in Jesuit secondary education. Fr. O’Neil enjoyed working with his lay colleagues and never lost his enthusiasm for tutoring his “brilliant” students and enjoying their success later in life. In recent years, in addition to tutoring, he took on the oversight of the school library. His mild and cheerful manner was much appreciated in the Jesuit community,
Only in his 96th year did his health begin to fail. He moved to Campion Center, where he peacefully died in the early morning of March 3, 2018.