Sister Cathleen O'Neill, MM

Born: June 11, 1930
Entered: September 2, 1955
Died: January 2, 2007

At 5:45 p.m. on January 2, 2007, our Sister Cathleen O’Neill died in Residential Care IV with Sister Eileen Franz assisting her. She had lived just over a year from the time she received the diagnosis of her illness. After discernment here and discussion with two physicians at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, Cathy made the choice to live to the fullest during the time given her and not accept treatment. As she said, “I have always believed in the Resurrection and death doesn’t frighten me.” The words of today’s Gospel resonate: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.” We all have spoken of Cathy’s sense of peace as she lived out these last months.

Cathleen Ann O’Neill was born on June 11, 1930, in Port Chester, New York, the daughter of Josephine Cesario O’Neill and Paul H. O’Neill. She grew up with a sister, Carmelita, and two brothers, William and Paul. We welcome her family and friends today and share their sorrow as we extend our deepest sympathy.

Cathleen was an eternal student, as any of us who knew her quickly became aware. She received her high school education at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich, Connecticut, a Bachelor of Arts from Newton College of the Sacred Heart, Newton, Massachusetts, and a Master of Arts in Religion from St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana, before she entered Maryknoll on September 2, 1955. Those of us in her group remember that in the early days of our postulancy, we would frequently see Cathy carrying one or two volumes of the Summa Theologica around with her. To be truthful, this was not what we usually carried!

At Reception she took the name Sister Paula Cathleen. She made her First Profession of Vows on June 24, 1958, here at Maryknoll and her Final Profession of Vows on June 24, 1964, in the Philippines. For a year following her First Profession she taught at Rogers College, Maryknoll, and then in 1959 was assigned to the Philippines where she taught at Maryknoll College in Manila for five years, also serving as Directress of Aspirants. Then she was sent to teach in the secondary school in Lupon, Davao, for three years, where she also was Assistant Superior. In 1967 Cathy was called home to Maryknoll to serve as Mistress of the Junior Professed, a position she held for two years. She then became the Founder and served as the first Director of the Mission Institute from 1969 to 1972. She is well remembered for this seedling effort which has grown to its current strength of a full summer program with distinguished presenters.

Following her time in the Mission Institute, Cathy offered her talents to the Maryknoll Society where, with Father Charles Davignon, she inaugurated the Center for Mission Studies (CMS), later under the direction of our celebrant today Maryknoll Father Francis McGourn. She also served as Director of Summer Sessions at CMS. For approximately seven years she helped in the development of mission-related programs. It is important to note that Cathy’s lifelong passion revolved around mission and training of missioners. It was her belief that mission is an emerging task requiring constant re-interpretation. Her own experience in the Philippines, her extensive reading and courses kept alive until her death a desire to articulate and help others speak of how God’s love had transformed us in the people to whom we were sent.

This passion for mission led Cathy to request study in Rome. The next four years proved stormy as Cathy grappled with goals, content for a Licentiate and finances. In the end permission was given for her to move forward. She studied first at the Maryknoll School of Theology, Maryknoll, New York, and then spent five years in Rome, with a summer in Jerusalem, where she earned a Licentiate in Sacred Scripture. For this she learned to read Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Cathy already knew Italian and French. One might say, “What does that have to do with mission?” but for Cathy scripture was everything. Those who studied under her when she taught found her engaging and provocative in her ability to match scripture to the theology of mission.

From the time Cathy returned from Rome, she responded to requests to give short courses and talks here at the Center for the Maryknoll Lay Missioners, the Sisters in the Contemplative Community, the Sisters in Reflection Phase and others. However, the larger share of her time was spent reading and studying, researching mission and scripture. The contemplative scholar in her suffered, I believe, as expectations called her to be more active. We are very grateful to Sister Rosemary Huber who, in recent months, has helped Cathy to sort volumes of notes and files and to Sister Teresa Hougnon who helped Cathy relocate from the Tower Room to an office in Rogers.

Cathy loved discourse, good conversations with varying viewpoints, and table talk. She possessed a whimsical humor. She was a delightful personal friend to many of us, persevering in her viewpoints and faithful to her beliefs. Her contemplative spirit prevailed often to the discomfort of her Sisters who wished for her to be more active, to teach, to work. I believe Cathy struggled with the tension of action versus contemplation all of her Maryknoll life.

We are very grateful to all who accompanied Cathy on this last journey, her family and friends who came and offered support, our own Sisters, her caregivers in Outpatient Care and Residential Care IV, Maryknoll Society friends – Fathers Dan Jensen, Bill McIntyre, Frank McGourn – former Maryknoll Society Associate Father Charles Davignon, Bernie Kwee, and so many others who sustained her in the past months. She was very grateful and told me so. To all of these people and to any who helped we, in her Entrance Group and the Congregation at large, say thank you.

Let us now celebrate Cathy’s life in this Liturgy of Christian Burial.