By Tony DeGol
The Catholic Register
For the late Father Daniel O’Neill, life seemed to center around three P’s: the priesthood, people, and the Penguins.
Father O’Neill, pastor of Saint Peter Parish in Somerset and dean of the Southern Deanery, passed on October 29 after complications for an extended battle with cancer. He was 68 years old.
Born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, and ordained a priest in 1976, Father O’Neill served at various parishes throughout the diocese, including pastorates at the former Our Lady of Mercy and Saint Barnabas Parishes in Johnstown, the former Saint Gregory Parish in Johnstown, and the former Immaculate Conception Parish in Lock Haven.
He served as Pastor of Saint Peter since 2008 and Dean since 2010. Over the years, he was also engaged in prison ministry.
His friend of four decades did not have to think long when asked to summarize Father O’Neill’s legacy.
“If you knew him, he made you a better person, a better priest,” said the Very Reverend Leonard Voytek, VF, pastor of Saint Mary Parish in Nanty Glo and dean of the Prince Gallitzin Deanery. “To know him was to be closer to God.”
The two men initially bonded through the priesthood and their love of hockey – specifically the Pittsburgh Penguins. Eventually, their friendship evolved into being great sources of support for each other.
“It started out as something fun, but we were there for each other through a lot of things,” recalled Father Voytek.
Tasked with delivering the homily at Father O’Neill’s funeral Mass, Father Voytek focused on another P: passion.
“Father O’Neill was a very passionate person,” he offered. “He was very passionate about people and his faith. He never did things half-heartedly. He really cared about people.”
That passion was evident, even in the last months of Father O’Neill’s life when his illness began taking a greater toll. Nevertheless, Father O’Neill maintained his busy pastoral schedule and remained present to others.
“I think he was identifying with Christ in his final weeks because of the suffering,” continued Father Voytek. “His faith never suffered. God doesn’t do anything half-hearted, and that’s the way Danny was. Even sick and dragging, he would find a way to do things.”
Jon Wahl, a friend of Father O’Neill’s and parishioner at Saint Peter, agreed.
“In the face of that suffering, his devotion to service remained his foremost thought and action,” he commented. “His commitment to our parish, the prisoners, the sacraments, and Jesus, our Lord, didn’t waiver regardless of his personal agony.”
Those who knew Father O’Neill also remember him as a learned man.
Friend and parishioner Dave Greene shared a love of reading with his pastor.
“He loved historical books, especially those dealing with the Irish, of course,” joked Greene. “We spent a lot of time comparing what we had read and sharing new works. He could also devour the Economist and the Wall Street Journal in quick time.”
Saint Peter Parish is home to a vibrant school – something that brought Father O’Neill much joy.
“Whether it was during a visit to the school, teaching a class, or celebrating Mass with us, his love for the school left everyone with a smile on their face,” noted Principal Jill Harris. “We are all so much better because of him. We remind our students each day that it is the small, loving acts of service that changes hearts, and Father was proof of that for so many. We miss him dearly, and we feel so blessed for having known and loved him.”
Father O’Neill spoke about the delight a parish school can bring during a 2017 appearance on the diocesan Proclaim! television ministry. The show features an occasional segment called “Answering the Call,” during which clergy and religious discuss their vocation.
“Catholic schools are a tremendous blessing,” he mentioned on the segment. “When you’re having a bad day, you go over to the school, and the young people have that ability to make your day.”
During the TV interview, Father O’Neill also offered some thoughts on the responsibility of priests to inspire others. His message was one that hopefully resonates with his brother priests and any man discerning a priestly vocation.
“We have to reflect an optimism, we have to reflect a joy,” he insisted. “We have to reflect that we enjoy being priests. This is what we’re called to do. We’re bringing Christ to people and how wonderful and joyous that is. We find joy in our relationship with Jesus Christ. We have to project that to our people.”