Pastor, campus minister Father McDermott dies


Story By Christine Bordelon,
Clarion Herald
Photos By Frank J. Methe, Clarion Herald

He was large in stature, but even larger in his ability to identify and nurture the best qualities in everyone he met.

Dominican Father Neal McDermott, a priest in the Archdiocese of New Orleans since 1984, died May 9 at the age of 86.

“What a beautiful man,” said Mike Vales, who met Father McDermott in 1984 after he arrived in New Orleans and worked in campus ministry at Loyola University. There, he held daily Mass and would invite students over for a meal and faith discussions, which often led to talking about the Blessed Virgin Mary, for whom Father McDermott had a special devotion.

“He was just a great guy,” Vales said. “He was the champion of the Eucharist, a champion of life and helped nurture faith. He was quite devoted to the Blessed Mother and heard about the apparitions in Medjugorje and took 20 college kids there (sponsored by his friend Joe Canizaro).”

He also was concerned about the less fortunate, said Vales, who worked with Father McDermott to develop  Mirabeau Family Learning Center at the Filmore Parc Apartments that Vales developed and currently manages. “I love him, and I miss him.”

Service to church

Father McDermott, born in Manitoba, Canada, was ordained to the priesthood in 1961 and was first assigned as a Latin teacher at Fenwick High School in Chicago, followed by stints as chaplain, professor and campus minister at several colleges including associate, then dean, of campus ministry at Loyola University New Orleans.

He also served as pastor at St. Dominic Parish in Lakeview for 11 years, executive director of Christian Formation for the Archdiocese of New Orleans where, after Hurricane Katrina, he worked with Archbishop Emeritus Alfred Hughes to create central schools as a way to help families return to New Orleans, regardless if they could pay or not, and as director of special projects for the archbishop.

As pastor, he made an impact on many young people who were involved in the parish’s Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). One of them was John Smestad Jr., now executive director of Pastoral Planning and Ministries for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Smestad had a part-time job working at the Dominicans’ prior desk at St. Dominic during high school through college graduation in 1997. He said Father McDermott invited him to be the youth minister at the parish. That led to his position as archdiocesan CYO/Youth and Young Adult director and, ultimately, his current job.

“He did that for a lot of people in a lot of his ministry,” Smestad said. “He saw gifts in people and called those gifts forth and opened doors.”

Dominican Father Charles Latour, who delivered the homily, called Father McDermott a “force of nature” and someone generous to a fault, especially when it came to families and children in need. “If he believed in something or in someone, he was a force to be reckoned with” and would make sure it would happen one way or his way,  Father Latour jested, telling the story of how he became Archbishop Hannan High principal due to Father McDermott’s intervention.

“I know you and I will miss his passion for life … his faith  … for his Dominican life … and helping others, for reaching out to those in need.”

Priest on a mission

His knowledge and gift of gab made Father McDermott a strong fundraiser, Smestad said. He saw fundraising as a means to an end goal, which often involved strengthening parishes and Catholic schools through scholarships for teachers and students.

“He knew how to network and connect people with needs,” Smestad said. “His passion was for schools and parishes to be well-informed and educated.”

His nephew Brad Dude, who with his wife Sue Weishar placed his Bible and cross on his casket at the Mass, said Father McDermott enjoyed the education process from elementary school to college as Loyola’s campus minister and as pastor over St. Dominic School.

“He enjoyed furthering education,” Dude said.

One benefactor whom he befriended approximately 40 decades ago at St. Dominic Church was businessman Joe Canizaro, chairman and CEO of First Trust Corporation, who gave the first Mass reading of Revelation detailing how God would always be with his people on earth as “the Alpha and the Omega.”

Canizaro mentioned how  he consulted Father McDermott on personal philanthropy and appointed him head of Donum Dei Foundation, from where the Canizaro family helped further Catholic education for many. He said Father McDermott suggested the name, which means “Gift of God.”

“I thought he was a fabulous priest and a very giving and compassionate person, and one who lived the life he believed in and spread the faith,” Canizaro said.

Archbishbop Gregory Aymond gave the final commendation and incensed the casket.

“I am thankful to God for Father Neal who was a man of faith and shepherd among people.”

As nods to his Irish heritage,  “O’ Danny Boy” was sung, and bagpipes played “Amazing Grace” as his casket was taken outside the church. His  Dominican brothers bid him adieu by sprinkling holy water on his casket.

“He had a joy of life, a joie de vivre and New Orleans really synced with that aspect of him,” Sue Weishar said.

Father McDermott was buried at the Dominican Cemetery in Rosaryville. He is survived by his sister, Patricia Hosea of Fullerton, California, and many nieces and nephews.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionhearld.org.

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