By Mary Howell, Special to The Catholic Virginian
Fifty years ago this summer, longtime Catholic Virginian editor Steve Neill set foot in Richmond and began looking for his first full-time job. Armed with a freshly earned journalism degree from American University, he had hoped to start his career in New Jersey where he had grown up, but he came to Richmond for an overnight visit to his aunt and uncle, who were longtime Richmonders.
While waiting for his uncle to return from work and with his aunt out playing bridge, he decided to head downtown “to see what a real newsroom was like.”
“I had an interview at the Richmond News Leader,” recalled Neill, adding that he knew little then about Richmond’s daily afternoon paper.
“Three days later I was back in New Jersey and received a call offering me a position at the Richmond News Leader.” Neill spent a year writing for what was then one of the Commonwealth’s largest circulation newspapers, but despite enjoying the tranquil atmosphere of Virginia’s capital, he missed the hustle and bustle of “big city” life.
“I’d grown up in Bloomfield, NJ, 12 miles west of Manhattan,” he explained, “and found my next job in Philadelphia, fundraising for the United Way.”
The move back north enabled him to assist his widowed grandmother in Haddonfield, NJ, but with a daily commute that often meant standing room only on crowded public transportation.
With Richmond’s laid-back atmosphere gaining appeal, after four years Neill headed to Richmond again in search of career opportunities.
“A lady I met at the local Red Cross asked if I’d be interested in writing for a religious publication,” he explained.
Neill clearly recalls that it was Friday, August 13, 1971 when he entered the offices of the Catholic Virginian for the first time.
“I interviewed with editor Charles Mahon, and realized the lady who’d referred me was his wife, Marian Mahon.”
His first assignment as a staff writer was covering Bishop John J. Russell’s celebration of Mass at Camp Parater in Caroline County.
“I soon learned that my job not only required taking photos, but also developing them!” he said.
In those days, The Catholic Virginian had its own darkroom. Despite having no photography experience, Neill soon taught himself how to process film.
“It was time-consuming,” he remembered, listing digital cameras as one of the many technological advances he’s appreciated in his work as a journalist.
Neill shared how Bishop Russell, who came from a prominent Baltimore family and had been ordained in Rome in 1923, influenced his career.
“One Good Friday, I was invited to join the Bishop at the rectory for lunch. His elderly cook served us ham sandwiches,” he said. “Rather than send them back, Bishop Russell pronounced, ‘Surely, God would take more offense at our offending this kind lady, than for the Lenten observance.”
Bishop Russell retired in 1973, but the two remained close friends, with Neill hosting the Bishop’s birthday celebration every year until his 95th birthday, nearly 20 years later.
Two landmark events occurred in the summer of 1974. Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, who was then an auxiliary bishop of Richmond, was named to succeed Bishop Russell as 11th Bishop of Richmond. The new Diocese of Arlington was established.
While the Richmond Diocese lost a portion of its territory in Northern Virginia, it gained a large territory west of Roanoke that was previously part of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va.
Bishop Sullivan immediately set out to visit the newly acquired Southwest Virginia parishes, with Neill doubling as both his driver and chronicler.
Reaching these remote parishes required navigating miles of winding, treacherous roads.
“Travel has improved a lot since those days,” Neill exclaimed, adding that with each trek west, he found how much he enjoyed meeting the pastors and parishioners of the far-flung mission churches.
“Everyone was so happy to meet their bishop in person and feel part of the Diocese,” he recalled.
It was during this time that Neill began his detailed profiles of each of the Diocese’s 142 parishes, rotating among the Eastern, Central and Western vicariates. These soon became a highlight of each issue of The Catholic Virginian.
Several Southwest Virginia churches occupy a special place in Neill’s memories – the log cabin construction of St. Patrick’s in Dungannon, the view of the mountains from the altar of the Holy Spirit Catholic Community in Jonesville and the exquisite setting of St. Andrew’s in Roanoke.
“Set atop a hill, St. Andrew’s is a fitting cathedral site,” he said.
Neill is grateful that from his installment in July 1974 and throughout his leadership of the Diocese, Bishop Sullivan allowed an independent editorial voice for the publication that reaches every corner of the Richmond Diocese.
“I’ve heard Bishop DiLorenzo declare more than once, ‘The Catholic Virginian has my full support,’” Neill said.
In 2003, Editor Charles Mahon retired and Bishop Sullivan appointed Neill, then associate editor, as his successor.
Of all the topics he’s covered, Neill acknowledges covering the clergy sexual abuse crisis was the most difficult. He also interviewed participants in the Rachel’s Vineyard program for women who have had an abortion, seeking to share with readers a message of hope and forgiveness.
Neill remains proud of the newspaper’s ongoing focus on conversion as a daily event.
“Pope John Paul inspired me to use The Catholic Virginian to share this perspective on our faith through both articles and editorials,” Neill said. He explained how chance events enabled him to meet the pontiff on May 1, 1990.
“I wasn’t on the Vatican’s list of visitors for that day, but someone failed to show up and I was the last person allowed in,” he said. “Then, because I was sitting on the end of the last row of an outside pew, I ended up being invited to serve as lector for that day’s Mass.”
One of Neill’s favorite stories profiled Father Henry van den Boogaard, who as a young priest was active in the Dutch resistance during World War II. At the time Neill interviewed him, Father van den Boogaard was serving as pastor of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament in West Point.
“He shared with me his wartime attempt to pass an enemy checkpoint with important documents tucked inside the bicycle basket,” Neill recalled. The young priest was accosted by a Nazi officer, who demanded, “What’s in your basket?”
Timely – and surely divine – inspiration led Father van den Boordaard to reply, “You’re the third person to ask me!” thus obtaining a wave-through and escaping detection.
Reflecting on 45 years of service to the Richmond Diocese, Neill acknowledged the role of divine guidance in his own his life.
“Sometimes I’ve been disappointed when I didn’t get something I wanted, but later on I was thankful that something else came along which would not have been possible if the first wish had been granted.” he said.
“As Bishop DiLorenzo has announced his retirement, I felt it was time for me to step down as well,” he said.
After 46 years with The Catholic Virginian, Neill retired June 30. His replacement has not yet been named.
He had open heart surgery in January 2015 for aortic valve replacement, followed by two smaller surgeries. He was in the hospital three times in 2015.
Neill plans to pursue his love of travel on a more regular basis.
“I’m looking forward to traveling to southern Italy and Sicily with good friends in November,” he said.
And when asked what advice he has for his successor, Neill offered, “I hope the next editor loves the job as much as I have. It’s truly been a calling.”