Father James G. O'Neill
Father James G. O’Neill was born in Baltimore on November 5, 1887. He received his early education at St. Gregory’s School and St. Charles’ College. He entered St. Mary’s Seminary in 1910 to study for the priesthood and was ordained priest by Cardinal James Gibbons on May 25, 1916. He was immediately assigned to the parish of the Immaculate Conception in Towson to work as a curate under the pastor, Rev. Philip Sheridan. Little did he know at that time that this would be his last posting. He would serve his entire priestly career at the Immaculate. In the early years of his assignment, he was an untiring worker. His calm and gentle manner endeared him to everyone far and wide. The enormous debt the parish suffered under began to take its toll on Father Sheridan and in 1934 he requested and received sick leave. He left Immaculate and never returned. Fr. O’Neill was appointed administrator at that time. He immediately began to work at reducing the parish debt. To this end, he appointed a “Church Debt Society”. In his request to the Archbishop, he said “….our debt is enormous and the interest consequently paralyzing. We cannot go forward with any pace until the load is lightened…..” The debt at that time stood at $151,000. The parish consisted in 1934 of 1500 Catholics, 234 pupils in the grade school and 88 pupils in the high school.
On June 9th, 1936, Father O’Neill was appointed pastor of the Immaculate by Archbishop Curley. During the next 8 years, he worked at reducing the debt until in 1944, he was able to announce to his parishioners (who by then numbered about 2,000) that due to their generosity, the parish was free of all debt.
He did not neglect the other facets of parish work during this time. He was continually improving the plant, promoting youth activities, assisting Towson Catholic in their stage presentations, even to helping build the sets. (He was a gifted carpenter). He built the parking lot, playground facilities for the school children, and because transportation was a severe problem in a then rural setting, prevailed upon the State and secured their approval to have the Catholic school children ride the free public school buses.
In all of this effort, he remained a man of dignity and simplicity that endeared him to everyone he met. He was respected and trusted by everyone. Although faced with the stress of reducing the heavy debt, he never once openly begged for money from the pulpit. Perhaps an anonymous letter from a parishioner gives us the best insight: “……the bulletins distributed on Sundays have as their keynote a tone of appreciation from the Pastor. During the past few years, the same keynote has been mainly responsible for the great development and growth of our Church. Because of the spirit in which they are approached. our people give willingly of the money and energy. Demands are unheard of. More mention is made after the money is collected and mention is in the form of thanks. What a joy to attend where financial matters are pushed to the background as much as possible. Our Church has something different, something that might be called an atmosphere of dignity and simplicity. Sermons are devoid of sensational affects and ‘rantings’. There is a foundation of sincerity and intelligence. Good taste as well as good will is employed…….”
Father O’Neill next turned his efforts to building a new modern high school. He was never to see that dream realized. For several years he suffered from diabetes and a heart condition. His condition became so grave that he was not permitted to celebrate Mass for a number of years prior to his death. In the high school fund bulletin, the Campaign-o-Graph, he noted “ ..During the past year, I have been of little use to the parish, but I do not consider myself entirely defeated. I still have visions…...”
Father O’Neill died on October 14th, 1947 after more than thirty years of devoted and faithful service to the parish of the Immaculate Conception. He was 59 years old.