Neil McNeil celebrates 50 years of Spiritan way

  • May 21, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - Fifty years have passed since Irish priests from the Spiritan order founded Neil McNeil Catholic High School, an all-boys’ Catholic school in Toronto’s east end.

Although many changes have occurred over these 50 years, including the school’s incorporation into the Toronto Catholic District School Board (it had been semi-private in the days before full provincial funding was extended to Grades 11-13) and the advent of new technologies and redesigned courses, alumni and faculty said the Spiritan vision lives on.

“One might say what Neil McNeil has valued, and values today, is invisible to the eye, but seen with the heart,” said John Shanahan, the school’s principal since 2001.

Part of the inspiration behind the school’s strong values are that Neil McNeil’s religion classes have held, and still hold, a strong social focus. Shanahan said that the Spiritan education has always been marked by spirituality, compassion, service to others, resilience, Christian leadership and evangelization. 

“It’s all about service leadership,” Shanahan said. “We’re leaders when we’re supporting others, and this is what we teach our students.”

It appears that students are still getting the message, based on the actions of more than a dozen senior students this year, calling themselves the Young Spiritans. They “formed of their own accord” to start raising money to build a school in Kenya, said Shanahan. He added that this spontaneous zeal has always existed within the student body, and was evident this year more than once. Students are very active in supporting charitable causes financially and physically. For example, students travelled to Louisiana again this year to help rebuild communities in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Students also help locally with Habitat for Humanity.

This year’s Young Spiritans group, Shanahan said, is a strong example of the leadership and generosity among students that continually crops up without encouragement from teachers. It reminded him of a story from 1968. Students agreed that $8,000, raised through the sale of chocolate almonds to offset the costs of running a private school, should go to support Nigerian children impoverished by civil war. In many years that followed, funds from the then-annual campaign supported mission projects.

 The founding Spiritan Fathers have always centred their lives on social work and ministry to the poor, with a missionary emphasis. They used teaching as a means to evangelize.

Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, a former Neil McNeil principal, said the school was a “great school for encouraging debate.”

“The 1960s was an era of incredible social change, post-Vatican II,” he said. “So the school never settled into the mould of a traditional Catholic school model.”

Despite the school having a “more relaxed” uniform than in the past, Fitzgerald said the school is still very much the school he retired from years ago.

“I can’t believe how children hand down traditions,” he said. “I was surprised to see that they still don’t walk over the emblem of the Spiritans.”

On the hallway floor just outside the school’s gymnasium sits the school’s emblem, which includes a representation of the Holy Spirit and the motto Fidelitas in Arduis embedded in the marble. Fitzgerald explained that when he was principal  students walked around it out of respect. At an assembly recently, he was surprised to see the parting sea of students as they filed out of the gymnasium and walked around the crest on either side.

Aside from breeding social works and fostering unique traditions, the school has also inspired many successful individuals, among them actor John Candy. And the school has inspired many religious vocations. Fourteen former students have gone on to become priests, with more than half serving parishes within the archdiocese of Toronto, including Auxiliary Bishop John Boissonneau who led Mass at St. Paul’s Church May 11 in honour of the golden jubilee. Many of the priests joined and others associated with the school throughout the years joined for a special dinner in downtown Toronto May 10.

Today, only one Spiritan Father actively serves within the school walls as chaplain, although the Spiritans still own the property and continue to see their spirit lived out in a tangible way.

Comments (0)

There are no comments posted here yet

Leave your comments

  1. Posting comment as a guest. Sign up or login to your account.
Attachments (0 / 3)
Share Your Location

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible, which has become acutely important amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.