The Most Rev. Dennis Patrick O'Neil, 63; Auxiliary Bishop

Times Staff Writer

A funeral Mass will be said today for the Most Rev. Dennis Patrick O'Neil, the Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of San Bernardino and longtime Los Angeles priest whose outreach to immigrants became a hallmark of his priesthood. O'Neil died last week of an apparent heart attack. He was 63.

O'Neil's body was found in a kneeling position next to his bedside, as if he had been in prayer at the time of his death, the church said. The body was found Sunday by a Catholic sister who had been sent to his home, the rectory at Christ the Redeemer Church in Grand Terrace, near Colton, after O'Neil failed to show up to celebrate Mass. He had apparently died sometime after returning home following dinner Friday with friends.

News of his death brought tributes from Pope John Paul II; the Most Rev. Gerald R. Barnes, bishop of San Bernardino; and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles.

Barnes said he was "heartbroken." Mahony, who is scheduled to preside at this morning's funeral Mass, the Mass of Resurrection, spoke of O'Neil's "priestly spirit, his generosity of heart."

A native of Fremont, Neb., O'Neil was the first of 10 children born to Robert and Patricia O'Neil, who later moved to Montrose, Calif. Though O'Neil was reared Catholic, he was the great-grandson of one of the highest ranking officials of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the mid-1800s, George Quayle Cannon. Cannon was a friend and confidant of church President and Prophet Brigham Young.

O'Neil, who was ordained a Catholic priest in 1966 after attending St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, spent a large part of his priesthood ministering to immigrants and to the poor in California and Alaska.

In the 1970s, he worked extensively with Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles and Orange counties who had fled to the United States after the Vietnam War. In the early 1980s, he was a missionary in the Diocese of Juneau, serving an area from Ketchikan to Skagway.

After returning to Los Angeles in 1984, O'Neil became pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in the Pico-Union district, where he encouraged door-to-door evangelization and small group meetings to reach out to Central American immigrants. He spoke fluent Spanish.

A Greek Orthodox priest who worked with O'Neil at the time called him a "spiritual consul-general" to immigrants.

"He was an individual who absolutely loved to be surrounded by people," said the Very Rev. John Bakas, dean of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, which is on the same block as St. Thomas the Apostle.

Working with immigrants and the poor continued to be a focus of O'Neil's ministry after he became auxiliary bishop of the sprawling Diocese of San Bernardino in 2001. In an interview with The Times last April, O'Neil said the church's task was complicated by the economic disparity between the rich and the poor and by racial prejudice. Only eight miles from exclusive enclaves for the wealthy, he said, poor people were sleeping in shanties with no sewers and electrical wiring that had been installed in the 1920s.

"In many of our Inland Empire destinations, you have people who are not as accepting or as eager to bring in newcomers, especially from another culture, another race. So it's a struggle," O'Neil said. The answer was to be found in education and Gospel values of love and brotherhood, he said.

Bishop Barnes put O'Neil in charge of a diocesan program intended to break down the barriers. It was a natural progression for O'Neil, who was among those who years earlier spearheaded a "welcoming the stranger" program developed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"You can't shove it down their throats. People resent that. They fight that," he said. "But by leading them to the Gospel -- showing them the way to Living Water -- most people work at it. A few who don't -- maybe they take a walk and maybe that's what God wants them to do. I don't know."

"He wasn't afraid to talk about the issue," Father Paul Granillo, secretary to Barnes, said. "He thought by standing up for the people and standing up in justice, that that's what Jesus would have done. That's how he lived his life."

O'Neil is survived by his mother, Patricia Cannon O'Neil of Montrose; brothers Rob of La Crescenta and Kevin of Glendale; sisters Kathleen Braun of Mission Viejo, Mary Candace Rucker of Glendale, Brigid Halpenny of Glendale, Patricia Hoying of Manhattan Beach and Anne Frazee of Montrose; and 37 nieces and nephews.

The Mass of Resurrection will be said at 10 a.m. today at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Chino Hills.

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