Farewell to center founder McNeill

Author: Ed Cohen

The Urban Plunge. Summer service projects. The Center for Social Concerns. Father Don McNeill, CSC, ’58, the man whose hunger and thirst for social justice created a culture of service learning inspired by Catholic social teaching that still beckons more than 85 percent of Notre Dame undergraduates toward volunteer work each year, died Thursday, August 24, at Holy Cross House near the Notre Dame campus. “Padre Don” was 81. Ed Cohen wrote this story in 2002, when McNeill stepped down as the center’s founding director after 19 years. We feature it this week as the University community remembers and mourns a priest who lived for others. —The Editors

Considering he’s been a priest for 37 years and considering all he’s accomplished as head of the Center for Social Concerns, it’s startling to hear Father Don McNeill, CSC, ’58 say that at times he questioned his worthiness to continue being a priest.

This summer McNeill, 66, will step down as executive director the Center for Social Concerns, which he helped found in 1983. The Holy Cross order has granted him a year’s sabbatical to travel, relax and study, after which he plans to work in an inner-city Latino neighborhood in Chicago.

“I’m not retiring. I call it transitioning to another ministry, another call.”

Replacing him as center director will be Father William Lies, CSC, ’93M.Div., a guest scholar in the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. Lies is the identical twin brother of Father Jim Lies, CSC, ’87, former rector of Zahm Hall and former director of spirituality and retreats for Campus Ministry.

Don McNeill is the second of three sons of radio pioneer Don McNeill, whose Breakfast Club variety show was the longest running program in network radio history. It was broadcast live from 1933 to 1968. The elder Don McNeill died in 1996.

After graduating from Notre Dame, Don Jr. studied theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. He was ordained in 1965 and returned to campus to teach theology, but almost immediately he felt out of place, he says. “I never anticipated staying at Notre Dame. I didn’t think I could be a teacher in the classical sense.”

Some of his classmates from the seminary were leaving the priesthood to get married, and McNeill says he began to have doubts about his own religious calling. “I was feeling unqualified as far as my prayer life . . . and I didn’t want to be a hypocrite.”

He credits three priests with keeping him on track, chief among them Henri Nouwen, whom he met on his second day back on campus. The teacher, pastor, psychologist, missionary and widely influential spiritual writer taught at Notre Dame for only two years but left a lasting impression on many. He encouraged the young McNeill to stay a priest, assuring him “You’re much more spiritual than you think.”

Nouwen advised McNeill to visit mentally ill and cancer patients — those on the margins of society or those dying — and learn from them. The two would remain friends and collaborators for life. Nouwen died in 1996.

The two others priests, McNeill says, were former Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, who became a leader in civil rights and public policy at the national level in the 1960s, and the late Monsignor John J. Egan, who served as Hesburgh’s special assistant from 1970 to 1983.

Like Hesburgh, Egan was one of the first priests to take part in the civil rights movement. He was founding director of the Office of Urban Affairs for the Chicago Roman Catholic Archdiocese from 1958 to 1969. McNeill met him in 1966 and the following year accompanied him to Chicago on the first of what is known today as the Urban Plunge, an experiential learning seminar that exposes students to inner-city life.

At Nouwen’s urging, McNeill left campus to enroll in the pastoral theology program at Princeton Theological Seminary. He returned to Notre Dame in 1971 with his Ph.D., joined the theology faculty, and took over leadership of a student group involved in overseas service work.

A decade later, the Center for Social Concerns was created to integrate and expand on programs in volunteer service and experiential learning. Today the center coordinates a wide array of courses, publications and conferences that encourage people to think critically about pressing social problems and take action to create a more just and humane world.

Besides directing the center for the past 12 years McNeill has been one of a small number of priests in residence in one of the women’s dormitories — first Knott Hall and then McGlinn, after the staff and residents of Knott moved to the new dorm behind the South Dining Hall. McNeill has long advocated greater involvement of women and laity in the church and says his main mentors in the later part of his life have been women.

Ten years ago, feeling conflicted over church policies and his role, he was introduced to a blind woman in Chile. After blessing the woman, he invited her to bless him and was profoundly touched by her words. He credits the experience with nourishing his recommitment to the priesthood.

While many of his friends from the Class of 1958 are retiring, McNeill says he hopes to have eight to 10 more “vital years” of his ministry after he returns from sabbatical. As he prepared to leave campus this summer, he said he felt a mixture of gratitude and grief. He was grateful for the support of his religious order and from the University administration for the center’s work. He grieved to think of the people he was leaving.

“Every time I’m with someone for the last time I get teared up.”

To read reflections on “Padre Don,” visit the Center for Social Concerns’ website. The University is in the process of creating a Father Don McNeill Endowment for Service Learning and Leadership to support the center’s programs financially.

Ed Cohen