Bengal Catholic director builds ministry at ISU while fighting cancer
The following story appeared in the February 25 Idaho Catholic Register.
David O'Neill, left, with his wife, Saeward, and their three children. O'Neill is the director of St. John's Catholic student center for Idaho State University in Pocatello. He has been battling cancer since May of 2020. (photo courtesy David O'Neill)
By Gene Fadness
POCATELLO – If anyone had reason enough not to show up for work during the height of the COVID pandemic, it would have been David O’Neill, the coordinator of campus ministry at St. John’s Catholic Student Center on the campus of Idaho State University.
Battling cancer and undergoing chemotherapy treatments, he was the perfect example of one who is “immunocompromised,” a word most had not heard of two years ago, but now a part of the American lexicon.
“He is committed to keeping the doors of St. John’s open so people can gather,” said Kyle McGowan, a supporter of the student center who is also vice president of advancement at Idaho State. “Everyone in the world would have given him the grace to stay home, but he didn’t do that,” McGowan said.
Cancer is not going to stop someone like O’Neill from ministry. Ministry is all he has known in his professional life and, more importantly, his faith life.
O’Neill, 39, is an Aussie, growing up in Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia. His family is Catholic, a family he describes as one where “faith wasn’t absent, but the practice of the faith was absent.”
Like most teens, he was not interested in church, but would attend Mass at his high school operated by the Marist Brothers where the hour would go by more quickly than the alternative study hall.
But it was during one of those Masses when he sensed, “There is something here, and I want it.” He spoke with one of the religious Brothers who was able to explain the faith to him for the first time in his life.
During his university studies, he encountered missionaries from NET Ministries (National Evangelization Teams), young people who give up nine months of their lives to work in parishes and schools, challenging young Catholics to encounter Christ and embrace the life of the Church through parish retreats and individual discipleship. Through their week, his faith deepened.
David O’Neill, center, leans heavily on his faith during his battle with cancer. “My faith has transformed my life,” he said. (Photo courtesy St. John’s Student Center)
O’Neill met his wife, Saeward, while a missionary for NET. Saeward, a native of Pocatello, served with NET in Australia in 2003, 2004, on staff in 2007, and in Uganda in 2005. Saeward met O’Neill in 2004 when she was with a NET team that was serving a neighboring parish to his. The work of that team led to O’Neill deciding to serve as a NET missionary in 2005. The two became engaged in Australia and moved to the United States. They married in 2007.
O’Neill became youth minister for Holy Spirit Catholic Community in Pocatello. After four years there, he became the director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of Baker, Ore, serving there from 2012-15. Then he was asked to become the director of the Catholic student center at the University of Idaho, St. Augustine’s. He was asked by Bishop Peter Christensen to consider a move back to Pocatello to take a similar position at the ISU campus when the campus minister, Pete Espil, became ill.
It had been a little more than five years since O’Neill had lived in Pocatello, but it seemed like a lifetime as far as the Catholic student center on campus was concerned.
He remembered St. John’s from when he first moved to Pocatello to work with junior- and senior-high school youths. “They didn’t have a priest and many times students would go there to find the doors locked and no one there. People had this perception that St. John’s was closed,” he said.
That changed when Espil arrived. “Pete Espil gave us legs again so that when I arrived it was an active, vibrant ministry,” with between 80 and 100 attending weekend Masses and many students attending daily Mass as well. Bishop Peter’s assignment of a permanent priest at the center – currently Father Costance Swai – and the arrival of the FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) have injected new life into Bengal Catholic.
The presence of a full-time priest on campus frees O’Neill to spend more time with students, building relationships. The students have a weekly dinner, weekly Adoration and activities to serve the campus and larger community.
But, just as things seem to be humming along a “surprise visit” to the emergency room in May 2020 resulted in a tumor removed from O’Neill’s colon. Tests revealed the tumor to be cancerous. “When I found out the diagnosis, it was quite frightening at first, but after the quick shedding of a few tears, I was able to move forward,” O’Neill said. “It must be the Aussie battler in me.”
For a time, O’Neill was told he was cancer-free, only to have doctors find another tumor, which kicked off another round of chemotherapy.
“I think one of the things that has stood out to me during these times is one of my favorite verses from scripture, Psalm 43:3: ‘Send forth your light and your fidelity; they shall lead me on. And bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where You dwell.’ ”
“In all of these things: the surgery, the diagnosis, chemotherapy, the brief joy of believing I was cancer-free, the finding of another cancerous tumor, and undergoing more chemotherapy, the prayer has always been the same, ‘Lord, you are faithful and true, and through all of this, I want to be with you. Even though I don’t want to carry this burden, I’d rather be experiencing this with You and the loving community you’ve surrounded me with, than by myself.’ ”
O’Neill said his family have been handling the situation well. “They know there are some things we used to do that I can’t do, the physical things, like roughhousing with them,” he said of his three children, two boys, 6 and 11, and a girl, 13. His wife, Saeward, is a licensed professional mental health counselor.
At the time he was interviewed for this story, the chemotherapy treatments, every two weeks, were going quite well, O’Neill said.
Then on Feb. 21, O’Neill posted this message to his Facebook page, unedited to preserve his characteristic humor and courage:
“Many of you know I’ve been fighting cancer for nearly two years. Y’all have been a huge support for my family and I during this time. Well, I’m here to ask, again, for your prayers and support. This Friday (Feb. 25), I’ll be headed to Salt Lake City for a major operation. They’ll gut me, cut out the tumors they find, and poison my insides with chemo for a few hours (all official medical terms). If I can follow doctor’s orders, hopefully I’ll be up and running again in six to eight weeks. (I’m aiming to be back in four!) If you could pray for me, that’d be great. If y’all have any priest/bishop/cardinal/pope friends, could you ask them to remember me as they celebrate Mass on Friday? I consider myself incredibly blessed by your love, care, and support. We’re gonna win this one and say farewell to cancer forever. Love you all.”
It isn’t just words when O’Neill says it is his faith that carries him through the ups and downs of ministry and life itself.
“The greatest gift of faith is the gift of truth that comes with it,” O’Neill said. “None of this would make any sense if it wasn’t true that Jesus Christ came into the world to restore our relationship with the Father, to help us build His Kingdom on earth so that we can live forever with Him in the Kingdom of Heaven. My faith has transformed my life and given me something to live for. People wouldn’t look at a cancer diagnosis as a gift, but, for me, it is an opportunity to unite myself with Christ and live through suffering joyfully.”
O’Neill can be reached at the St. John Catholic Student Center, 917 E. Lovejoy, Pocatello, ID, 83201, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. The website is bengalcatholics.com.
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