O’Neill Leaves Legacy of Faith and Joy in Ruston Upon Passing


by Nancy Bergeron

Blane O’Neill, the high school English composition teacher, was a tough cookie. If he thought a student’s paper was fluff, he’d stamp it with a picture of a cloud. If he thought it was worse than fluff, he’d draw a picture of an outhouse on it.

Fr. Blane, the parish priest, was kind, open, jovial and, parishioners said, always showed the mercy of God.

“Father Blane was an open book, caring, humble, who kept a smile on his face 24/7,” Alfredo Morelos, a parishioner at Ruston’s St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church where Fr. Blane was senior parish associate, said.

Fr. Blane died March 28 at age 92. Participants in the church’s Hispanic ministry the Franciscan priest helped found, guarded his body throughout the night as part of the Mexican tradition of honoring the dead.

Funeral Mass for Fr. Blane was held on Tuesday, April 4, at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish.

Fr. Blane, a Chicago native, spent 65 years in ordained ministry. He was transferred to St. Thomas Aquinas in 2006 at age 81. “The idea was he would be here to retire, but Blane never retired,” said Fr. Al Jost, one of the Franciscan friars who lives at the St. Thomas friary.

Instead, Fr. Blane remained active in the parish and especially in Hispanic ministry.

But that wasn’t where his career began. After completing his seminary studies, Fr. Blane was assigned to St. Joseph Franciscan Seminary in Oak Brook, IL, to teach English and Latin.

“His major role was to get us ready for college,” said Fr. Al, who was one of Fr. Blane’s students. “He was the toughest of teachers.” Yet Fr. Blane has what Fr. Al describes as a “profound effect” upon his students – so much so that years later they would stop to visit their former teacher.

In 1969, at age 45, Fr. Blane was sent to Mexico to learn Spanish. “That was the beginning of the major part of his legacy,” said Bro. Mike Ward, campus minister for the Association of Catholic Tech Students.

It was the era of liberation theology; many of the contemporary Church writings were being done in Spanish. Catholic leaders began to realize the growth of the Spanish-speaking population in America and the need for priests to be able to communicate in Spanish rather than the Church’s traditional Latin, Fr. Al said.

After his year in Mexico, Fr. Blane returned to St. Joseph’s to teach English and Spanish. In his off time, he began serving Spanish-speaking seminary employees. By the time Fr. Blane arrived in Ruston after two stints in San Antonio, one in St. Louis and five years as manager and editor of the Franciscan Herald Press, he was devoted to Hispanic ministry.

“He was very driven to see the Spanish community progress,” Morelos, St. Thomas Aquinas former coordinator of Hispanic ministry, said. The Hispanic community has grown from four families when the ministry began to now as many as 300 people, Alfredo said. A Spanish-speaking Mass is now celebrated every Sunday, as well as on major church celebration days.

“Father Blane was such a humble person. He always had something good to say about everybody. For that reason, he made us feel loved,” Alfredo said.
Ortega, a native of Mexico who’ll graduate from Louisiana Tech University in May, called Fr. Blane her “home away from home.” “He was so welcoming and never judgmental,” she said.

Fr. Blane’s first concern when he entered what would become his final hospital stay, was missing Mass and whether parishioners were being cared for, Bro. Mike said. “He must have asked me that 100 times,” Bro. Mike said, during a prayer service for Fr. Blane. “His dying wish was that y’all know how much God loved you.”

Colleagues and others describe Fr. Blane as vivacious, always game for a good time, yet studious and eager to listen and learn.

“He enjoyed good literature. He was always reading, reading,” Fr. Al said. Fr. Blane had a master’s degree in British literature.

“He had very strong opinions concerning some social issues,” Kevin Cuccia, of Ruston, said. “He was never afraid to voice his opinions. Sometimes his sermons would get a little fiery.”

Seminarian Raney Johnson, a Tech graduate and former parishioner, remembers the joy with which Fr. Blane ministered to St. Thomas.

“He motivated me because he showed me that someone can dedicate their entire life to God as a priest and live joyfully and full of life,” Johnson said.

Friends say Fr. Blane’s smile is one of the things they’ll remember  – and miss – the most, along with his charge at the end of every sermon to “have a magnificent Ruston day.”

“He did a lot for Hispanic ministry, but his ministry was much broader,” Fr. Al said. “He had a ministry of presence.”

Said Ortega, “You could tell God was in him and he was in God.”

Story courtesy of the Ruston Daily Leader.

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