By Steve Neill Of The Catholic Virginian
Looking back on my first day of work at The Catholic Virginian on Sept. 20, 1971 the Diocese seemed a different place than it is today. Bishop John J. Russell was the 10th Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. The Diocese itself encompassed its current territory, plus the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington. Its western border reached to Salem. But the Diocese also included several parishes in the West Virginia panhandle.
When Bishop Russell retired at age 75 in 1973 Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, who had served as an auxiliary bishop since Dec. 1, 1970, was named Apostolic Administrator. He was appointed 11th Bishop of Richmond and installed in 1974.
In those days there was little of the modern technology of today, which made getting a weekly paper out quite a job (yes, it was a weekly paper back then). I had to learn darkroom techniques, mixing the right chemicals and timing the process before hanging a sheet of negatives to dry. It was tedious work because it was all new to me and I was always grateful to find images which then could be made into prints to be used in the CV.
Each page of the paper had to be manually pasted up. Photos were measured by picas and cropped by hand. Before that could be done, the newspaper’s articles were typed on a manual typewriter, looked over for typos and then presented on long galley sheets for proofreading. Then they were cut and pasted onto boards.
Charles Mahon, longtime editor of The Catholic Virginian, hired me as a staff writer. We worked well together for the next 32 years until he retired in 2003. He was an amazing man which became so evident when he pretty much taught himself as each new advancement in technology arrived. I was fortunate to have his blessing as his successor and Bishop Sullivan appointed me editor, the third in the newspaper’s history.
Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo became the 12th Bishop of Richmond on May 24, 2004. Days earlier I accompanied Bishop Sullivan to the Richmond Airport to welcome him from Baltimore, along with Cardinal William Keeler, Richmond’s Apostolic Administrator until Bishop DiLorenzo’s installation. Immediately following the announcement he headed to the Diocesan Chancery Offices, then located across the street from the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, for a media conference. He and I greeted each other warmly.
I quickly learned that one always knew where one stood with Bishop DiLorenzo and where he stands on an issue. He remains transparent to this day. He has always been supportive of me, which I appreciate.
I loved Bishop Russell, my “first” bishop, who was kind of a grandfather figure to me. He was a stately Virginia gentleman, the last Richmond bishop born in the 19th century. Each year on his birthday I had a birthday dinner for him at my home. Jack and Nancy Muldowney helped host the dinner for eight.
Bishop Russell was ill at the Little Sisters’ home on his 95th and last birthday. We carried a birthday cake with candles to his room and sang “Happy Birthday” to him. He was pleased that we kept the tradition going.
Bishop Russell was from Baltimore and had two sisters who lived there and a brother, Msgr. W. Joyce Russell, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. I remember driving Bishop Russell and his brother to a family gathering in honor of their sister Mary’s 90th birthday. I felt so honored to be included in the festivities at the Baltimore Country Club.
I credit Bishop Sullivan for helping me learn so much about the Diocese of Richmond when I drove him to places near and far. I was with him when he made his first visit to Appalachia in southwestern Virginia, soon after that territory was transferred to the Diocese of Richmond from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va.
Over the next 30 years I made so many visits to the rural parishes in southwestern Virginia, most of which had fewer than 100 parishioners. Bishop Sullivan made at least two visits a year to that part of the Diocese which then was known as Region X. Regional gatherings were usually held at Christ the King Church in Abingdon.
On these road trips with me as driver there were no such things as cell phones. Bishop Sullivan had a car phone so he received frequent calls which needed his attention. He always carried a big cardboard box filled with mail which he answered. He dictated most of his correspondence on a tape recorder which was then delivered to Marilyn Lewis, his longtime secretary. Marilyn and I have frequently joked that we could write a book which would include much of what we learned through Bishop Sullivan’s letters. Let’s just say that our lips are sealed.
On one such road trip, Bishop Sullivan dictated the annual upcoming clergy assignments. This was to be top secret information until public announcement was made.
“Steve Neill, I better not find out that you leaked any of these assignments,” he warned. Marilyn got a similar warning, but we both told him that if any leaks occurred, it would be from the priests themselves who told others about their new assignments.
A momentous occasion I look back on was the Diocese of Richmond’s celebration of the new Millennium in 2000. Bishop Sullivan organized a Diocesan Convocation which was held at the Robins Center of the University of Richmond. The day-long celebration was held on a Saturday in May and brought together 6,000 people from all parts of the Diocese. It was a celebration of several different cultures. And a fast-paced celebration it was! To attract as many people as possible, Bishop Sullivan asked parishes to cancel their Saturday vigil liturgy so clergy and laity could attend. People came from all over and met new friends at various points on the University of Richmond campus. Mass, which began with a procession of colorful banners from all parishes and different ethnic groups in their traditional dress, capped the beautiful celebration.
I was with Bishop Sullivan when he dedicated the new church of Holy Spirit Parish in Jonesville in Lee County, the westernmost parish of the Diocese. I was last there in July 2011 to write a parish profile and the following day traveled to Sacred Heart in Big Stone Gap for another parish profile. Father Tim Drake, now retired, was pastor of both along with two other parishes.
In my 45-and-a-half years with The Catholic Virginian, I have been to every single church except one – St. Stephen Martyr in Chesapeake. With retirement I now will have more time and plan to make a visit if I head back in that direction.
During my tenure, I have visited Haiti and the Diocese of Hinche four times, accompanying Bishop Sullivan who brought me because I spoke French and he did not. My high school and college French stood me in good stead when we met Church officials and I served as interpreter. Bishop Sullivan often would ask “what did he say?” before the speaker finished a sentence in French.
It was sad to see such poverty in Haiti. I remember my first night in Haiti. In Port-au-Prince our group of four was staying at Mon Reve (French for “My Dream”), headquarters for a missionary society of Belgian priests. Walking I came across three young boys having the best time laughing on a dusty dirt road as they took turns kicking an old beat-up can down the road. They had so little in earthly goods but these boys found such joy in such a simple activity.
On another visit, Brother Cosmas Rubencamp, our driver and guide, was driving through the streets of Port-au-Prince when we were stopped by a chaotic scene with shouting and angry voices. As I looked out the backseat window I saw a man laying on the ground bleeding profusely from his head. We did not witness the beating, but saw the result. Police officers soon arrived and the street was cleared. We continued our journey but we were all shaken by what we had seen. Another time Haitian guards halted our vehicle at a checkpoint and asked each of us to give them our passports. A guard took the passports, went into a small hut and left us wondering what would happen next. After 10 minutes the guard returned, gave us back our passports and allowed us to proceed.
I have never regretted my visits to Haiti even though we stayed in somewhat primitive conditions. Despite ever-present poverty, everyone we met at Catholic schools and convents of Haitian sisters were overjoyed to welcome us. Yes, they knew we wanted to help them, but their sense of hospitality far exceeded any expectations they may have had.
With Bishop DiLorenzo’s 2004 arrival and my promotion to editor a year earlier, I was no longer able to spend weekdays traveling to multiple parishes as I had with Bishop Sullivan. But often on Sundays I still visited folks at parishes and took photos for our parish profiles. I enjoyed these visits with pastors and the parishioners.
In January, 2015 I had major open heart surgery for aortic valve replacement. I had complications the third day. My kidneys were failing and I could have no liquids even though I was so thirsty.
Late that night I was sleeping in my darkened hospital room when I heard murmured voices. I briefly opened my eyes and saw three from a medical team hovering over me. I looked over and saw Frannie Muldowney, a dear family friend who worked at the hospital, gently massaging my hand with her eyes closed. I distinctly remember silently wondering “Is this how it’s going to end?” But what is remarkable to me today as it was then is that I had no fear of what might happen if I were to die.
Fortunately, my condition improved and on Saturday morning I had so many visitors who I guess came because they didn’t think I would make it. I left Henrico Doctors Hospital after 13 days.
I am grateful to the Little Sisters of the Poor at St. Joseph’s Home who did not hesitate when I asked them if I could recuperate there after the hospital. For 23 days I received loving care from the sisters and their competent staff, then stayed with close family friends for several more days before returning home. I later had two other smaller hospital stays for a lingering infection, and returned to the hospital a third time for an appendectomy in July 2015. The next year I had a skin cancer which required several treatments.
Even though I loved my job with The Catholic Virginian, my colleagues and my warm relationship with Bishop DiLorenzo, my energy level had waned. It seemed time to retire and seek a more leisurely pace of daily life. Everyone always said, “you’ll know when it’s time.” That proved true and I spoke to Bishop DiLorenzo about retirement in mid-January. The Bishop himself will soon be retiring. We both want to stay in touch and hope to do so over lunch or dinner. He has been wonderful to me. I will have just attended the Catholic Media Conference in Quebec when this article appears. I’ll visit friends of 50-plus years in Palo Alto, California, in September and in November I’ll be part of a 13-day pilgrimage to Sicily and southern Italy.
I am leaving with happy memories of my almost 46 years with The Catholic Virginian. I like to say that I have been paid for doing what I liked to do. I also leave with the assurance that The Catholic Virginian will be in good hands with whoever becomes the next editor. And I, like everyone else, wonder who our next bishop will be.