Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Fr. Hugh’s last name as O’Neil. The correct spelling is O’Neill and has been changed.
Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Fr. Hugh currently resides at the home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor in Gallup, NM. At 86 years old, Fr. Hugh still celebrates Mass, hears confessions, and ministers to his fellow residents.
Voice of the Southwest (VoSW): How did you end up out here?
Fr. Hugh: Well, I was a late vocation because I kind of put things off. Over the years I would say “I still want to be a priest”, so I went to my spiritual director who said “well, you’re not getting any younger. Do you still want to be a priest?” I said “yeah. I’ve thought about being a priest with the Native Americans.” [he had heard a talk about ministry in the Southwest and was attracted to it] So I got ahold of Bishop Hastrich. Bishop Hastrich wanted me to come talk to him in person so I flew over from New York and he showed me around. And as we got to know one another he okayed me.
So I got ordained by Bishop back in 1977. By the time I was finished, I was almost 44 when I got ordained.
I worked at a newspaper as a printer, also in magazines. I kept thinking about being a priest because I was an altar boy for years. When I was ten I thought “that’s what I want to do”, but I kept putting it off. I went out on dates and dates, went in the Army in Korea. They drafted me back in ’52. But I couldn’t get out of the idea of being a priest.
VoSW: What was your job in the Army?
I was in the Infantry, and then they were afraid the Chinese and North Koreans would try to bomb the East Coast, so they put me in the Anti-Aircraft Artillery. But they never came. [he stayed in the States] I did what they wanted me to do. They wanted me to stay in the United States, so I stayed in the United States. Whatever they wanted me to do, thats what I did. Just follow the orders! (laughs)
My younger brother was in Korea, though. He didn’t like it much.
But then when I was a priest, I thought “maybe I should be in the Navy.” These ideas come into my mind. I passed the test so I became a Navy Chaplain over in Rhode Island. Worked on ships but never got seasick. Maybe it was because I was an officer, but I liked it better in the Navy (laughs).
Then I got an infection in my leg and a medical discharge, so no more service after that. Then it was back out here, wherever they needed me. For 41 years as a priest they’ve moved me around, then I became a hospital chaplain, prison chaplain, and then helping out in parishes. Even though I was no spring chicken, they moved me here and there.
VoSW: So how long have you been officially retired for?
I think about 15 years? I was 44 when I got ordained, and I just celebrated my 86th birthday.
And the priest retirement fund, that helps you?
Oh yeah, it’s a big help. I wouldn’t make it without that. Because we live in a poor Diocese, if not the poorest in the United States. They don’t pay much here. In fact, one of my friends, when I was in seminary, said “you’re going out there? You don’t get much money there!”
I said “I didn’t become a priest to get money, I want to help people!” (laughs) He thought that because I wouldn’t make much money I should go to where the pay is better. Money doesn’t interest me that much. I had all that fun, dating and dancing, but I said, “I’m still not really happy.” So this is what I tried, out here, in the Diocese. I like working among the Hispanics, the Native Americans, and Anglos.
So what do you do now? You help with saying Mass?
Oh yeah, I help out with Mass, I help out with Confessions, the sick, with the Last Rites or Anointing. So even though I’m retired I’m moving all over.
Why is it important to support retired priests?
Well, I would say, priests that retire – because of their health and age – they put in their time and they could use the money for the rest of whatever life they’ve got left. And they still can help the people.
Looking back, and knowing now what it’s like to come out to a poor Diocese, if you had to do it all over, if you could choose a different order or Diocese, would you still choose to come here?
Yes, I would. I like working among the poor people. Money doesn’t bother me. I just wanna be with people. There’s a need for priests for these people. I’m gonna put myself to good use here, and it worked out very well. I was ordained, like I said, for 41 years, and they were some of the happiest years ever. It’s hard to put into words. It was the best thing I ever did.
If you’d like to support Fr. O’Neill and our other retired priests, contact our development office at 505-863-4406 or make a pledge online right here.