Monsignor James O'Neill left a legacy in the Roman Catholic Church in Wyoming as a gentle priest who reached thousands through his pastoral work and an imaginative weekly television Mass, two priests said.

O'Neill, 89, died in Casper on Monday,

He was among 34 priests from Ireland who came to Wyoming since about the time of statehood, and was among the last three, said fellow Irishman the Rev. Tom Sheridan, who is now the only remaining "FBI," or "foreign born Irish."

O'Neill was graduated from St. John's Seminary in Waterford, Ireland, was ordained in June 1954, and came to Wyoming with three or four other priests two months later, Sheridan said.

"It would have been considered, what we can say, 'English-speaking mission country,'" he said.

Wyoming had a long connection with Ireland throughout its history, Sheridan said, adding one of his own cousins was a priest in Laramie from 1888 to 1920. "That's how far back it goes."

O'Neill started in Kemmerer and Newcastle, and spent most of his time as a pastor of St. Mary's Cathedral in Cheyenne, and pastor of St. Anthony's Church in Casper before he retired in 1998. Since then, he lived at the rectory at St. Patrick's Church.

O'Neill also reached thousands of people through his weekly Mass on television, which was seen in central Wyoming to western Nebraska to northern Colorado, he said.

"He did it for years," Sheridan said. "He said there were something like 10,000 people, half of them who were not Catholic, who used to watch that Mass."

The idea for the weekly television Mass arose from O'Neill's struggles with sickness, the Rev. Michael Carr said.

"He was so aware of the longing that people had to be able to participate in the Mass from home, when they were confined to home," Carr said.

"So monsignor was able to touch so many people from that ministry, and I think he just had the vision of that's what was needed," he said. "He was a very visionary person."

O'Neill hosted the television show for 17 years and won an award for his work from the Catholic Extension Society, Carr added.

Carr was a junior high school student in 1955 when he met O'Neill, who was an associate pastor and youth teacher at St. Mary's Cathedral. Carr later was O'Neill's associate at the Cathedral from 1971 to 1978.

"He was just a marvelous pastor," he said.

"In the parish, he was just so open and affirming," Carr said. "If someone would come with an idea, he would be most helpful and helping them achieve whatever they had in mind."

"I would say that Monsignor O'Neill was certified as the best hugger of Wyoming, because as people were coming to church he would always greeted them with an embrace and a smile and a 'welcome to church.'"

From the pulpit, Carr said O'Neill affirmed people by the fact that God loved them: "God loves us, that we are redeemed by God, and that it is not so much dependent on our response to God, as the fact that we were first loved by God."


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