Fr. Douglas McNeill

Author: John Janaro


by John Janaro

An old woman carefully sweeps the dirt floor inside the single room hut that shelters her family. A pot simmers gently on a wood stove in the corner, and smoke rises to touch the thatched roof. As the woman calls outside to her granddaughter, in a language that few people have ever heard, a rooster flaps its wings, and a few scraggly dogs run freely among a small cluster of four or five huts. They look almost as hungry as the people.

Every few miles there is another group of small wooden dwellings; most are only a little larger than tool sheds. Narrow dirt paths cut across dry stretches of land with sparse vegetation, and the nearest paved road is nowhere in sight. There is no electricity, no running water, and no modern sanitation. One is not surprised that this place is mission territory, and that the needs of these isolated people are a particular concern for Christ's Church. What is surprising, however, is that this place is ; that the kind of life one automatically associates with the "Third World" is lived here in the midst of the sloping and colorful majesty of Northern New Mexico, in the shadow of the great Rocky Mountains that loom on the horizon.

The Navajo Reservation unites over 200,000 Indians in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, covering a stretch of land larger than most Eastern states. It is also-by federal definition-the poorest rural area in the nation. In this poverty stands the hungry Christ, the homeless Christ, and the abandoned Christ. The diocese of Gallup, New Mexico has no intention of ignoring the suffering of Jesus; on the contrary it has established missions for the assistance of the Indians, missions which in their service to the poor embody the poverty of spirit which Christ wills for His Church.

St. Bonaventure's is one such mission. Its staff of lay volunteers make it uniquely suited to the wide variety of projects that must be carried out on behalf of the Indian people. One man, however, stands as the focal point of the mission, and as the source of the spiritual formation that inspires every work.

"Go and make disciples of all nations" (Mt. 28:19). Fr. Doug McNeill is a priest with a special call to evangelization; St. Bonaventure's parish has only twenty Catholic families, but its territory covers the whole area around Thoreau, New Mexico, touching the remnant of the Navajo nation and ministering to the often desperate needs of the Navajo people, most significantly their profound need to encounter their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who is yet unknown to most of them.

New Mexico, however, was the last place in the world Doug McNeill ever expected to spend his adult life. Born in Brooklyn to Irish immigrant parents on March 6, 1942, Doug grew up in surroundings that differed greatly from the ones in which he now works. Yet as a child he experienced a poverty not unlike that which he encounters today. The McNeill's had seven children, but Doug's father was an alcoholic and was unable to support the family. His mother worked nights as a cleaning woman, watched the children during the day, and often scolded her husband who came home drunk almost every afternoon.

Yet it was not a difficult house to live in. Mother set a strong example, and Father was not in any way violent or abusive. Doug remembers eating stale buns and tea for breakfast as a child, then being sent off to school in a bright and clean uniform. Most of Doug's teachers were Xaverian brothers, and they communicated an awareness of God that made a very strong impression on the boy. "The heavens are yours and the earth is yours" (Ps. 89:11).

This awareness, however, did not stop Doug from getting into mischief. He and his friends were always plotting to run away from home and become "independent." Often they stole items from stores, things that they would need once they were "on their own." One night they broke into a friend's house and the father, not realizing that the intruders were children, chased them out furiously and threw a knife at the front door that barely missed Doug's head as he was fleeing the house. "The man who fears the Lord will accept his correction" (Sir. 32:14).

For all of their troublesome behavior, however, the boys always knew that they had done wrong and encouraged one another to go to confession. As Doug grew older he became a more responsible and more successful student, finally earning a scholarship to the Christian Brothers' high school, LaSalle Academy.

During this whole period the idea of becoming a priest had begun to take shape in his mind. Indeed it had been present since childhood, but his first inclination had been to dismiss the idea; a mischievous boy like himself, he thought, would never be worthy of the priesthood. At LaSalle, however, he received much more encouragement, and at the advice of one of his teachers he wrote to various religious orders and congregations for information.

In this way he first heard of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, and deep within his own heart he perceived a call to bring the message of salvation to the far corners of the world. There was something dramatic and necessary about missionary work, something that seemed to complement the desire for the priesthood that he felt so strongly.

"And he got up and followed him" (Mt. 9:9). Thus at the age of 16, Doug McNeill desired once again to leave home, but this time for a much different reason. Sacred Heart Mission Seminary in Illinois offered him the opportunity to finish his high school years in an atmosphere that corresponded to his newly found sense of direction. At this time the missionary vocation appeared as the pearl of great price, and Doug was willing to abandon the final two years of his scholarship at LaSalle in order to seek it.

Thus in the fall of 1958, Doug began nine years of association with the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. After high school and two years of college, he made a full year novitiate in Youngstown, Ohio, where he developed a greater sense of God as the source of his vocation, and the sense that the priesthood was a particular path to holiness upon which he was called to walk, and not simply a "service in the world."

After novitiate in 1962, when Doug first formally entered religious life, he did not imagine the changes that would take place in the world during the next five years, nor the particular questions and problems that would arise regarding the way of life he had chosen. His years of preparation for the priesthood, however, passed right through the heart of these most difficult years. Doug was being prepared to be a foreign missionary in Papua, New Guinea, some 5,000 miles across the Pacific ocean. Yet with each year he became increasingly convinced that he was being called instead to the service of his native land. It seemed that there was a great deal of missionary work needed in America itself, particularly during the troubled era of the late 1960's. During the summer of 1966, Doug and several other seminarians assisted in a census of a black parish in inner city Detroit. They arrived at the rectory on their first day and found themselves in the middle of a severe incident of racial unrest so characteristic of the tension and danger that plagued the city all that summer. That afternoon, Doug spent nearly an hour under a table as bullets crashed through the rectory window and whized overhead.

Peace was eventually restored, and in the course of taking the census Doug confronted countless poor black families who were anxious to place their children in Catholic schools, aware as they were that Catholic schools had a tradition of educational excellence and character-building. He realized all the more the vitality of Catholic educational institutions, and the necessity of preserving them. "Teach them to observe all the commands I gave you" (Mt. 28:20).

Meanwhile Doug was becoming increasingly convinced that his vocation lay outside the religious life. He wrote to the vocations director of his home diocese of Brooklyn, who suggested that he pray and wait before making any decision. And so he prayed and waited. After a year he decided to write to his superiors in Rome and request secular status, and a dispensation was granted by the Congregation for Religious in the summer of 1967. With three years of theology already completed, Doug was now free to pursue the diocesan priesthood.

After leaving the structured direction of religious life, however, Doug found himself confronted with confusion about the whole of his vocation to the priesthood. In fact, he was quite sure at first that he was not, after all, called to be a priest. So he got a job as a construction worker and began seeking more permanent employment in New York City. He interviewed with the Boy Scouts and the Red Cross and made up his mind that-in any case-he definitely wanted to live a life of service.

Beyond this desire, however, there was only darkness about the future, a future that had at once seemed so settled. Yet it was a darkness of faith; Doug did not pause for a moment in the practice of his spirituality, a discipline that he had learned so well in his formation thus far. And the Holy Spirit, who had placed within him the desire to be priest and missionary, had not forgotten him or the vocation that still held promise; a vocation that would blossom anew in the midst of Doug's own uncertainty. For "whoever believes in me need not stay in the dark anymore" (Jn. 12:46).

Towards the end of the summer he visited the family of his friend and former classmate Phil DeRea. It was Phil who encouraged him not to give up on the priesthood; there were a variety of dioceses in the United States "with a missionary flavor" that perhaps could use someone with Doug's training, orientation and desire to serve. As Doug thought about this possibility, one diocese in particular came to mind as a "mission diocese." Doug probably did not even know where Gallup, New Mexico was on a map, but he wrote to this large and sparsely populated diocese and explained his situation. "The vocations director must have been waiting at the Post Office," he recalls. The answer came back immediately: report to Immaculate Conception Seminary in Conception, Missouri. "So I did."

Once he had determined to resume priestly studies, Doug discovered a newfound zeal and a deep desire to be ordained into a share in Christ's eternal High Priesthood. The Spirit nevertheless was determined to test the purity of Doug's desire by requiring him to be patient. He finished his final year of theology in 1968 and expected to be ordained soon afterward. The seminary, however, would not issue a letter of recommendation to his diocese because he had not met the minimum two-year residency requirement. Bernard Espelage, O.F.M., who was the founding bishop of Gallup, would not ordain Doug without a letter from his seminary; instead he sent him to work as an assistant to the priests of a parish in Winslow, Arizona.

"Be patient, brothers, until the Lord's coming" (Jas. 5:7). During a year in Winslow, Doug assisted in teaching, organizing, and building up the parish grounds. His status was uncertain during this whole time; he had not yet been ordained a deacon and the bishop, who was retiring, had determined to leave the resolution of his status to his successor. So Doug waited in the midst of a good deal of anxiety, but also with a deeper sense of peace. He was convinced by this time that God indeed had a plan for him, and that this period of waiting was designed to lead him to complete resignation to God's will. Meanwhile the priests were very encouraging and supportive, and the people of Winslow treated him like one of their own.

In January of 1970 the new bishop, Jerome Hastrich, was installed and immediately contacted Doug. The Bishop invited Doug on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, where they could get to know one another and also pray about Doug's future. At the Shrine Doug was profoundly moved by the great faith of the Mexican Indians, which brought to mind the many Indians who still waited to hear the Gospel message.

Upon their return, the Bishop quickly scheduled ordination dates for Doug, and on May 30,1970 he was called to the priesthood. It was a day of joyful celebration in Winslow as their "adopted son," who had worked side by side with the parishioners, now approached the altar of God.

". . . all our qualifications come from God" (2 Cor 3:5). Doug McNeill brought faith and patience to the service of the priesthood. The unusual and often difficult circumstances which attended the development of his vocation had given him a sense that the Holy Spirit was present and active in directing his life according to the wisdom of God. Now he was prepared to embrace his ministry with this same spirit of trust.

For Fr. McNeill this ministry would be expressed in the preaching and teaching of the faith, in the fundamental work of catechesis linked to the whole vision of Catholic education. After a year at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Holbrook, Arizona, where among other things he worked to establish the first diocesan marriage tribunal, Fr. McNeill was granted a scholarship from the Extension Society for the Home Missions to study Religious Education at Fordham University in New York. After two years-during which he was able to live at home in Brooklyn-Fr. McNeill received his M. S. degree and returned to Holbrook, where he set about establishing a religious education office for the Arizona side of the Gallup diocese.

During two years of study, Fr. McNeill had encountered many contemporary approaches to religious education and had seen their basic inadequacies. Some of the programs simply did not anything, or else they taught a vague "gospel" of earthly social responsibility rather than a Gospel centered on the power and truth of Jesus Christ. His own catechetical program, he was convinced, must proclaim the Good News of salvation. This proclamation should include the pervasive presence of Scripture understood in its fully Catholic significance. "There is power in God's Word," he often reflected, "the power to change lives."

At this time Fr. McNeill was working almost exclusively with the small Catholic population of the diocese. The vast Navajo nation, though it surrounded most of the areas in which he worked, had not yet taken a central place within his ministry; in fact he was still not fully conscious of the plight of the Indians who lived so near.

However, in 1974 things began to change. Fr. McNeill moved to the parish of St. Bonaventure in Thoreau, New Mexico where he hoped to establish the New Mexico office for religious education in the diocese. St. Bonaventure's is a "mission parish" in a community with almost no Catholics that borders the reservation. Though he was pastor, Fr. McNeill did not anticipate that the work of the parish would make many demands on him; this made it appear to be the ideal residence from which he could organize the religious education program.

A religious sister and a few volunteers comprised his initial staff, and the program was soon underway. Fr. McNeill could not help noticing the Indians who were his neighbors, but it was two years before he became actively involved with them. The gateway to full-time Indian mission work was the Southwest Indian Foundation, a diocesan social help organization that was heavily into debt. A new director was needed, and no one in the diocese really wanted to take on the task. Fr. McNeill found himself volunteering, and he was suddenly thrust headlong into the plight of the Navajo.

For many this plight is a desperate poverty and a crippling sense of helplessness. The Navajo had been a nomadic tribe, wandering the Southwest with their herds of sheep, before their confinement to a reservation a century ago. They survived a change of living habits and remain today the largest Indian tribe in the United States. But they are a people afflicted by illiteracy, unemployment on a grand scale, high infant mortality, a suicide rate that is ten times higher than the national average, rampant alcoholism, and a variety of other health problems. Hepatitis and tuberculosis are present, and-virtually unheard of in our "modern" era-there is the consistent occurrence of bubonic plague, with about four or five cases discovered each year.

Fr. McNeill began to restructure the Southwest Indian Foundation, attempting to restore a budget that was $700,000.00 in the red, and give to the organization on overall sense of purpose and direction. In the process God began to send volunteers to help him in the most needed work. "It is to the glory of my Father that you should bear much fruit" (Jn 14:8).

A truck driver offered his services to the mission, and he and Fr. McNeill established a route for the delivery of fresh water. With the aid of four-wheel drive vehicles the mission began bringing water to the Indians who dwelled in otherwise inaccessible places. Here Fr. McNeill became aware of other needs-the buildings in which the Indians lived were falling apart; some, in fact, had become quite dangerous. So they put their slim resources into building repair. The mission was able to build an eight-sided one room traditional Indian "hogan" for under $2000.00. Furthermore, contact with the Indians brought a greater awareness of medical and nutritional problems. Soon a nurse arrived at St. Bonaventure's as a full time volunteer, and a meals-on-wheels program was established. In order to foster greater outreach to the Indian children, Fr. McNeill began a summer camp, which also became a source of new mission workers, as some volunteer counselors got a sample of the life of the Mission and decided to stay.

Soon Fr. McNeill had a regular staff of volunteers who lived in several trailers and a house across the road from the church. The church at that time was a one-room building, part of which also served as a roller-skating rink. When one day a small Navajo boy asked him, "How come you skate in your church?", Fr. McNeill realized that the effort to communicate the reality of Christ to the Indians required a worthy roof over the real presence of Christ, and over the Eucharistic Sacrifice in which He redeems the world.

Therefore he decided to build a separate church. However, there was clearly not enough money for the kind of building he wanted. Fr. McNeill managed to raise some through donations, and the Extension Society gave $10,000. Still, he needed to finance the labor and the expertise that would be needed to put up the building. "What did I think was going to happen to let us build that church without any money?" Fr. McNeill wonders. But God made something happen. A new volunteer arrived at the mission, a man who also was an expert carpenter, plumber, and electrician. Thus the organization and skilled labor for the church was free of charge, and the community was able to erect the building in 1976 for less than $50,000.

St. Bonaventure had indeed become a demanding assignment, but also one that was beginning to bear fruit. With this in mind Fr. McNeill resigned as director of the Southwest Indian Foundation and began to devote himself exclusively to the Mission and the community that was growing up around it. He began with a conviction that had its roots in his whole previous formation and was consistent with the work he had done thus far in the service of the Church: St. Bonaventure's needed a school!

"See that you never despise any of these little ones . . ." (Mt. 18:10). Three years earlier Fr. McNeill had begun a pre-school and he had come to realize some of the particular problems that Navajo children face. Many of them do not receive a proper education; often cultural and religious customs in Navajo families discourage education or any social assistance that tends to lead Indians away from the reservation. The state government provides boarding schools, but they do not provide the saving truth of Jesus Christ. Fr. McNeill began to see evangelization as the cornerstone of a beneficial education for the Navajo youth, and the key to reaching the whole people: "Knowing Christ and knowing their native culture and religion, they would be a bridge in making a Navajo Catholic American," he thought.

"Don't let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me," (Jn. 14:1). Fr. McNeill was convinced that God willed the mission to provide an education centered on the Gospel. Armed with this confidence, he did all the preliminary work in the spring and summer of 1981 that would be necessary for St. Bonaventure Academy to begin instruction in the fall. Only two problems remained: he had no teachers and no school building. With faith, Fr. McNeill forged ahead, signing on 20 children for the fall semester-the Holy Spirit would see to the teachers, he was convinced.

Two weeks before the school was scheduled to open, three volunteers arrived at the Mission. They wanted to teach. Fr. McNeill was not surprised. By putting different groups of children into different corners of the main hall next to the church, he was able to open the school on schedule. St. Bonaventure Academy, Fr. McNeill is convinced, was God's project rather than his own: "He sets these things up and I trust Him all the time, and then when I think it's all lost he pulls it all out and says, 'see I had it all planned.'" "Do not give up if trials come; and keep on praying" (Rom. 12:12).

After the first year it became obvious that St. Bonaventure Academy needed its own school building. The Mission had a mailing list of only 800 people-not a very large resource from which to raise funds. Continuing his trust in God, however, Fr. McNeill sent out a letter in which he explained the situation of the Academy. One woman on the list had recently lost her daughter in a car accident, and had received an out-of-court monetary settlement. Though it was a large sum, she had no desire to use it personally. When she read Fr. McNeill's letter, she "heard God's voice" telling her of a worthwhile way to honor her daughter Teresa, who had a great love for children. Thus Fr. McNeill suddenly found himself with $100,000.00 for his project, and he was able to build St. Teresa Hall.

Soon more volunteers arrived at the school to teach, and others were hired to assist in its administration. The Academy purchased a number of four-wheel drive school buses so that children could be picked up and dropped off each day at the reservation; this meant that St. Bonaventure's would be one of the few Indian schools that is not a boarding school. Nevertheless, in 1984 the Mission opened a boys' group home and a girls' group home for children who come from difficult home situations. The residents attend St. Bonaventure Academy; they also have scripture study at the group home and they are brought to Mass every Sunday.

Evangelization is the key to the work of St. Bonaventure Mission; nevertheless the profession of Christianity is not required in order to receive help from the mission. Fr. McNeill wants to avoid superficial "conversions" that proceed solely from a desire for material advancement. "We're not selling Christ as a pastry," he says, "it's got to be commitment." "Do not let your love be a pretense, but sincerely prefer good to evil" (Rom. 12:9).

He realizes, however, that it will take a great deal of work to build the sense of commitment. Fr. McNeill expects that it will take three generations for a truly vibrant Navajo Catholic community, fully aware of its faith, to grow up around St. Bonaventure's. At this time there are almost no Navajo Catholics, yet Fr. McNeill is completely dedicated to the proposition that only Jesus Christ can raise up the Navajo people, not only to life in the Spirit but also to a dignified and truly human life on earth, one that completes their own particular talents and creative energy.

Today St. Bonaventure's Mission is thriving, with its school, pre-school, summer camp, group homes, meals-on-wheels, water delivery system, thrift shop, daily free lunch for the poor, library, and building repair service. In addition it cooperates with several state and federally funded projects-the much-needed alcoholism program and a basic medical clinic which has a doctor on duty from 10 AM to 2 PM each day (the nearest full time medical facility is 30 miles away).

Also there are several programs that have just gotten underway. In October of 1986, Fr. McNeill opened a Vocational Training School that offers auto mechanics, home repair, computers, welding, and printing. The school has been made possible by several significant contributions, including the donation of an entire print shop.

Recently the Philips Petroleum Company, after a failed mining venture in the area, donated a large stretch of property to the Mission including a mobile home development and a park for recreational vehicles. With the mobile homes, Fr. McNeill has opened a Catholic retirement center, where senior citizens can settle permanently and volunteer their many talents and services to the Mission.

Fr. McNeill also has long term goals. He hopes someday to establish a Navajo Studies Center and perhaps a college. He also hopes to have a full high school, not just for Navajo but for everyone in the diocese-at present there is no Catholic high school in the Gallup area. These goals, along with all the present work, primarily depend on private donations, which can be sent-along with any inquiries-to St. Bonaventure Church, P.O. Box 610, Thoreau, NM 87323.

Currently, the Mission confronts its tasks with a full time staff of 22. These people are not simply "volunteers" who take time out from their various busy schedules to lend a hand. Rather they are committed lay missionaries who live in the area or in the modest complex of trailers that sit across from the church on the mission grounds. Most significantly, as residents, they make up an important part of the parish of St. Bonaventure, united in Christ and in the Eucharist.

This is where Fr. McNeill sees his own place in the work of the Mission. He has a unique role as the spearhead and point of unity for all the lay workers. He offers Mass, leads prayer, and provides the formation that constitutes the soul of missionary work. In particular, by his ministry of the Eucharist, Fr. McNeill binds the whole Mission together in Christ and offers Christ, with the work of the Mission, to the Father each day. The Daily Mass, Fr. McNeill frequently stresses, is the most significant event in the life of his Mission community, and the source of its strength.

"Everything is possible for anyone who has faith" (Mk. 9:24). In this sense Fr. McNeill views himself as an "enabler," putting down the roots out of which grow all the work. These roots, above all, draw nourishment from the Church. Because of Fr. McNeill's presence, St. Bonaventure's is more than just a collection of people with good will. "The Church certifies and guarantees that our mission is truly from Christ," he insists, and he notes that his own position manifests the connection of the Mission to the bishop of Gallup and the Universal Church. Thus the mission effort is linked to the work of the Catholic Church, the work of Jesus Christ.

This Universal Church is the source of inspiration and direction for Fr. McNeill and his community. The voice of the Holy Father is authoritative, and there is no room at St. Bonaventure's for those who are not responsive to the Holy Spirit as He speaks through the Vicar of Christ. "We have had people of that kind of a mind before, and I have sent them away," says Fr. McNeill.

In the many services they provide an overall spirit of dedication to the Gospel is central. The Navajo Indians hunger not only for bread and for a better life, but also for the Word of God. Thus, in addition to the work of presenting the Catholic faith, Fr. McNeill seeks to have every activity-indeed the mission community itself-stand as an evangelical witness so that the Navajo people might know the love of Jesus. "We're trying to live Catholic social teaching in its fullness," Fr. McNeill notes, pointing out that such a commitment rules out any kind of ideological "sell-out" for the sake of quick results or purely materialistic solutions. Those who run after the radical ideologies of this world as the only vehicle for social change have no place in the work of this Mission. Fr. McNeill notes that ideologues in Christian disguise "have given up on the efficacy of the power of Christ, of the Church, of the sacraments, and we haven't done that. Why would I give up on Christ? Who else has words of eternal life?" ". . . and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God" (Jn. 6:69).

Thus St. Bonaventure Indian Mission continues to flourish, and Fr. McNeill's priesthood plays an integral formative and unitive role. The Mission has meant for him an opportunity to serve Christ in the poor and to teach the redeeming message of Christ. In this way the wisdom of God becomes more apparent. For indeed, the Spirit was determined that Fr. McNeill become an American missionary. As Fr. McNeill learned, it is God who is truly in charge of his life, and he has brought this attitude to his ministry. In this way the Divine plan encompasses a call to the Indian people of New Mexico to embrace redemption in Christ Jesus-a call that Fr. McNeill and the Mission seek to embody and to express.

Chapter Nine of Fishers of Men published by Trinity Communications in 1986.