William E. Cleary Sr. | CNBNews
I first met Father Brian when my mother-in-law Blanche Sarlo was sick with cancer. Brian arrived at St. Mary’s parish in 1977, a year before Blanche died. He visited her at home and during the last few weeks of her life at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia. The first thing I liked about the man was his warm demeanor. He was charming and affable. He was especially easy to talk to.
This particular day as we were driving home after seeing Blanche, I happened to say out of the clear, “Fr. Brian, the good Nuns at St. Marys told me when I was still in grammar school if I received Holy Communion and went to mass on the first Friday of each month for eight straight months I will be guaranteed a happy death?
In grammar school, on the First Friday of each month, starting in second grade, students needed to attend mass on the First Friday up until 8th grade.
What is a happy death, you ask? Numerous definitions can be found on the internet. For example, a happy death does not mean a painless death. A happy death meant that one died in good moral and religious circumstances. That meant that you didn’t die in some morally compromised situation, you didn’t die alienated from your Church, you didn’t die bitter or angry at your family, and, not least, you didn’t die from suicide, drug or alcohol overdose, or engaged in some criminal activity. The kicker was you died in a state of grace, having received the Last Rites or Last Sacraments.
After I bragged that I got a lock on going to heaven, he said, “Bill, I am sorry I have to tell you this, but you need to make nine straight Fridays of the month, not eight. You will have to start all over.”
When he said this, he had that impish Irish smirk, the same smirk he showed when he thought something was hilarious. Look at the photo that accompanies this article, and you can see it. Notice, too, that smile extends into his eyes.
In the late 70s, the Concerned Citizens put up a blockade to stop trains at the Monmouth Street RR crossing to protest that the train cars were carrying toxic chemicals through Gloucester City. When we owned the newspaper, John Ryan, the Gloucester City NEWS photojournalist, took a picture of Fr. Brian at the tracks off to the side that day carrying a protest sign supporting the people of Gloucester City.
In December 1994, on the day my mother was dying, who came walking in the front door out of the blue but Father Brian. I hadn’t seen him in years, yet somehow he was there.
Years later, I ran into him at Barnes and Noble after he retired. He was dressed in a flannel shirt and corduroy pants that were too big for him. I didn’t recognize him initially because of his attire; we were both much older. But when our eyes met, that smile I first saw some 50 years ago that I described above still lit up his face.
Over the years, he entered my life when ever I needed him there the most. As others have commented, Brian was a friend and mentor to many people in Gloucester City.
If anyone lived a life that mattered, it would be Brian Edward O’Neill.
Rev. Brian Edward O'Neill passed on March 31, 2023, at 82. He was born on July 9, 1940, in Philadelphia and prepared for the Priesthood at Resurrection College in Ontario, Canada, and Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University.
He was ordained for the Diocese of Camden on May 18, 1968, by the Most Rev. George H. Guilfoyle at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. He served as Parochial Vicar for St. Maria Goretti, Runnemede; Sacred Heart, Camden City; St Andrew the Apostle, Gibbsboro; St Mary's, Gloucester City). Fr. O'Neill was pastor of St Gregory's, Magnolia, and Senior Priest at St. Simon Stock Parish, Berlin. He retired in 2010 and has resided at the Sacred Heart Residence in Cherry Hill.
Brian proudly served our nation in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was later a Military Chaplain at Langley Air Force Base, a part-time Chaplain at Ft. Dix/McGuire/Lakehurst, a member of the Marine Corps League, and a Fire Chaplain in Gloucester City. As Director of the Deaf Ministries, he was warmly welcomed by the deaf community.