Msgr. Kevin T. O'Neill, canonical administrator at Mary Queen of Angels Regional School in Cheektowaga, reflected upon his work supporting Catholic schools after he received the Outstanding Achievement Award at the annual Catholic education dinner for his ministry and service in January.
At the Jan. 29 dinner, Msgr. O'Neill was introduced as a priest of over 50 years who has "always been a steadfast supporter of Catholic education, touching the lives of countless students and their families." In recognition of his achievements, Msgr. O'Neill was awarded $500 to donate to a Catholic elementary school of his choice, which he chose to give to the school he now serves, Mary Queen of Angels.
During his acceptance speech, Msgr. O'Neill recalled when he was once asked what he liked least about being a priest. He answered, "Not having children." However, he joked that by serving Catholic schoolchildren for 48 years, he was able to have "thousands and thousands of children."
"An award like this is not just in my honor," he added. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for many, many people, especially all of our principals. A number of mine are here tonight, and I want to thank them for this award, for their love for our kids. Our teachers, many teachers I had in East Aurora are here tonight. They have always been faithful and gone along with everything to make our children's faiths grow."
Msgr. O'Neill also thanked the parents who continue to choose a Catholic education for their children, much as he himself received in his youth. He grew up in South Buffalo as a parishioner of Holy Family in Buffalo, attending Bishop Timon High School in Buffalo. After being ordained in 1961, he served his longest assignment, as pastor of Immaculate Conception in East Aurora, for 23 years.
"I've probably been in charge of Catholic grade schools for 48 of my 54 years," Msgr. O'Neill said after the dinner. "In my young years, I coached basketball for the school kids. I began a program when I was at Blessed Trinity (in Buffalo), with the principal there, of working especially with the eighth grade every year. We started out with a retreat, and each year, we had a different theme."
Msgr. O'Neill recalled how during at Immaculate Conception, he taught eighth-grade religion classes and continued his special interest in children's liturgy. For decades, he took his school's oldest students on class trips out of town to make graduation special, a tradition that continues today.
"It was 23 years in East Aurora, so that was probably where I was most known for my time with the kids," he said. "When I retired (in 2005), Bishop (Edward U.) Kmiec called and asked me if I would take Mary Queen of Angels. It was a school that had been all of Cheektowaga into one school, called a regional school. That was supposed to be for a year, and nine years later, I'm still doing it."
Mary Alice Bagwell, principal of Mary Queen of Angels, said last month that regional schools have canonical administrators, while parish schools usually have a priest, generally the pastor, who helps the principal run the school. Bagwell said Msgr. O'Neill has always supported Catholic education, and she praised him for continuing to minister to children even though he is officially retired.
"He's always been a big proponent of eighth-grade trips, so he always goes with the eighth-graders on an overnight field trip. Pre-9/11, they would fly and go to places, anywhere from Orlando, Fla., and I know they went to Montreal in Canada. They were all over. Since 9/11, we tend to stay in the United States, and we only travel by bus, but every year he goes with us and the eighth-grade class."
During Bagwell's tenure as principal, the students have gone to Cleveland, Ohio, Pittsburgh, Pa., and on an overnight field trip to Toronto, Canada. The trips are "chock full of educational things," Bagwell said, but in addition, the trip includes recreational activities, such as visits to amusement parks.
"The kids love him, and he always goes with us and participates fully in all of those, so that's kind of a big deal," Bagwell added. "I think (his award) is so well-deserved because of his commitment to Catholic education, and in today's age, when all of these schools are closing, it is wonderful to have a priest who is so interested in keeping Catholic schools open, and keeping them viable."
When asked for thoughts on being able to have such a profound impact on his students throughout the years, Msgr. O'Neill said, "My experience has been that I still keep contact with many of the kids. I think the kids felt there was a connection with the parish, the priests, that they weren't ever used to."
"My most precious award was when I retired. The first group of kids, probably in their 50s or 60s, got together. I was basketball coach for them," he continued. "They gave me an award of appreciation for my influence in their lives, and to me, that was the most important award I ever received. I still hear from many of the kids. Some come to visit me. Some are almost retired; it's been that many years."