Troubled Priest Dies of Cancer

By Jody Kleinberg
Press Democrat
November 17, 1998

Rev. Vincent O'Neill, who served as a North Coast priest for 27 years and was known for his charismatic preaching and for his ability to admit his own failings, died of a brain tumor on Nov. 12. He was 53 and had been suffering for close to two years, church officials said.

"Vince was a wonderful person and a good friend," said Father Angelito Peries, O'Neill's successor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Windsor. "He has gone through a lot of physical, emotional and psychological pain. I would say to the community that it is important to celebrate all God's gifts. Father Vince was definitely a gift to us."

O'Neill resigned from Our Lady of Guadalupe in November 1996 after three men went to Bishop Patrick Ziemann and alleged O'Neill molested them when they were altar boys in the 1970s. In the following months, two more men came forward. In January 1996, the Diocese of Santa Rosa settled the case by giving the men an undisclosed amount of money.

As part of the settlement, the church required O'Neill to undergo treatment for substance abuse and for his sexual problems. Bishop Ziemann also sent a letter of apology to each man. No criminal charges were ever filed.

During the proceedings, O'Neill was forthcoming with his parishioners, Peries said, and even shared his problems with members of the church. He spoke freely of his addiction and of his struggles to be a good person, he said.

"That kind of honesty scares people," Peries said. "In the world, we are not used to such openness. His life teaches us great lessons. He wanted to be an honest person. In the end, the main lesson is the one that Jesus taught, that God loves us no matter who we are."

Both Peries and Father Dan Whelton, Vicar for Priests for the Diocese of Santa Rosa, were with O'Neill at a Danville convalescent home the night before he died. In his last hours, O'Neill was surrounded by his family and seemed to finally be at peace, Whelton said. "He had accepted his illness and was ready to go to God," Whelton said.

Born in Oakland, O'Neill knew he wanted to be a priest in his early teens and joined St. Patrick's seminary in Menlo Park, Peries said. He was ordained a priest in April 1971 and quickly joined the Diocese of Santa Rosa.

In his 27 years of service, he taught at Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa and at St. Bernard's Church in Eureka, and was the pastor of the Holy Spirit Church in Santa Rosa, Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Fort Bragg, St. Philip the Apostle Church in Occidental and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Windsor.

O'Neill was especially dedicated to helping those afflicted with AIDS, Peries said. He set up programs at both St. Philip the Apostle Church and our Lady of Guadalupe to help AIDS patients.

"He loved plants," Peries said. "Being close to nature is like being close to God," he said. "He planted a garden to help feed people with AIDS."

O'Neill was also a marvelous photographer, Whelton said, and had a real eye for what was beautiful and spiritual. But it was his charisma and way with words that made him popular and effective. "He was a wonderful preacher," he said. "He also had a great sense of humor and an amazing charisma. He was very talented."

O'Neill is survived by his mother, Agnes O'Neill of Oakland; brothers Kevin O'Neill of Walnut Creek and Terrence O'Neill of Manhattan; and numerous nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will be held at 7 o'clock tonight at Holy Names College, 3500 Mountain Blvd., Oakland.

Memorial contributions can be made to Hospice Preferred Choice, Inc., 1470 Enea Circle, Suite 1710 Concord, 94520 and to St. Philip Parish or St. Philip Parish AIDS Ministry Outreach, P.O. Box 339, Occidental 95465.


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