Retired Archbishop Joseph MacNeil of Edmonton, Alberta, is pictured with students in an undated photo. Archbishop MacNeil died Feb. 11 after a stroke. Courtesy Archdiocese of Edmonton Archives

Death of a 'gentle giant', archbishop led Edmonton for 26 years

By  Andrew Ehrkamp, Canadian Catholic News
  • February 14, 2018
EDMONTON – Alberta’s Catholic community is mourning a giant character in its storied history following the death of retired Archbishop Joseph MacNeil, a humble disciple with a unique ability to remember names, faces and details of the lives of thousands of people.

“Archbishop MacNeil, throughout his tenure here, was a larger-than-life kind of a figure and he was known far beyond the local Catholic community,” Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith told reporters and archdiocesan staff at a news conference on Feb. 12.

“Wherever he was known, wherever he was encountered, he was always met with profound gratitude and respect for his person, for his integrity, for his ministry, for his dedication to people, for his dedication to the Church. His passing marks at the same time, I would say, the passing of an era.”

Archbishop MacNeil, who led the Archdiocese of Edmonton for 26 years, died Feb. 11 at the Grey Nuns Hospital after suffering a stroke. He was 93.

“In those 26 years, obviously he was able to exercise a massive impact, an impact that we probably never will be able fully to measure, on the lives of many, many people and certainly in the life and the ministry of this Church,” said Smith.

“A gentle giant has gone,” added Bishop Gregory Bittman, Auxiliary Bishop of Edmonton, who was ordained as a deacon, priest and bishop by Archbishop MacNeil and was with him by his hospital bedside when he died.

“In my whole priesthood I have been surrounded by giants. So if you remember Gulliver’s Travels, I feel like I’m one of the people from Lilliput. I have been surrounded by giants and Archbishop MacNeil was a giant — a giant as a bishop, a giant as a man, a giant as a father to everyone.”

The funeral Mass for Archbishop MacNeil was set for Feb. 16 at St. Joseph’s Basilica, with the interment to follow at Holy Cross Cemetery in Edmonton.

Joseph MacNeil was born the oldest of three children in Sydney, N.S., on April 15, 1924, and he had made Alberta his home ever since he was installed as Archbishop of Edmonton on Sept. 5, 1973.  During his term, he committed himself to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, empowering lay people in the Church, building friendships with other faith communities and extending the Church’s efforts in social justice. In retirement, he continued his ministry with personal visits and retreats.

There are few Catholics in the Edmonton archdiocese who don’t have a connection with Archbishop MacNeil, either through a personal encounter or through the sacraments, especially Confirmation.

“He was a living history of this diocese. He loved to talk and he had many, many stories,” Bittman recalled.

Archbishop MacNeil took particular pride in the Edmonton junior and senior high school named after him, which opened in 2003.

“He was just a wonderful priest, a wonderful bishop with a great touch, especially close to young people,” Smith said. “He was able to have that personal, direct touch with anybody with whom he came into contact and it left a deep, deep impression.”

And if Archbishop MacNeil met you, it’s more than likely he remembered you years later.

“Probably the key standard of measure, in his episcopal role, that I find extraordinarily difficult to measure up to, is the way that he knew everybody,” Smith said.

“He knew people. He remembered their names. He could tell you where they were from, probably the name of their pet, the names of their cousins. He knew them through and through.”

That facility to make friendships extended to people of other denominations and faiths. Archbishop MacNeil even insisted upon inviting other faith leaders to the prayer service led by St. John Paul II led when he visited Edmonton in 1984.

Archbishop MacNeil Pope John Paul II

(Photo courtesy of Grandin Media)

Security was an especially sensitive issue at the time, because the visit came after an assassination attempt on the Pope. But Archbishop MacNeil and the Holy Father made their own plans to visit Elk Island National Park, about 60 kilometres east of Edmonton, after a planned visit to Jasper fell through because of the weather.

“This was worked out between the Archbishop and the Pope; nobody else knew this,” Smith said, recalling the story.

“Security went crazy  — ‘We can’t do this, nothing is secured’ — and the Archbishop looked at the head of security and said, ‘I don’t even think God knows that we’re going out to Elk Island! We’re going to be OK.’ And so off they went.”

In the end, a photo of St. John Paul II at the park — alone among the trees, praying his rosary as he often did — became one of the most famous photos ever taken of the Holy Father.

After retiring in 1999, Archbishop MacNeil’s ministry of leading retreats or making visits continued unabated.

(Grandin Media)

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