Father Simeon Wilberforce O’Neill

In keeping with monastic tradition, our community reads aloud each departed Brother’s obituary on the anniversary of his death, during Compline. In the words of our Rule, “In Christ we are still one with our departed brothers and we express this communion through regular prayer for them and by recalling their lives on the anniversaries of their deaths. We believe that they pray for us and that we will be reunited when Christ gathers all creation to himself, so that God may be all in all.” (Ch. 48). Below is Father O’Neill’s obituary.

Father Simeon Wilberforce O’Neill, a priest of our Society, died on 28 August 1882 at Indore, India in the forty-fifth year of his life and the sixteenth year of his religious profession.

Father O’Neill was one of Father Benson’s first companions, and was sent out by him to India in 1874, after a visit to the United States. Before joining Father Benson in 1865 he had taught mathematics at Eton School and later was the assistant curate of the Parish of Wantage. Together with Father Benson and Father Grafton he began an experiment in community living in a small house on the Iffley Road in Oxford in the summer of 1865. That experiment resulted in the three of them making their Profession in vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience as Mission Priests of the Society of St. John the Evangelist on the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, 27 December 1866, thus restoring the religious life for men to the Anglican Church.

Before going to India he used his considerable talents as a mission preacher and conductor of retreats in both England, the Caribbean and the United States. In addition he was a gifted linguist and soon mastered the Urdu language, into which he translated the Psalter. In 1874 he went out to India, where he was to spend the rest of his life. Once in India he soon settled down to a life of rigorous asceticism at Indore, described by the local British government official as the worst place in India to come to. There, he scandalized the European population by choosing to live in much the same way as his Indian neighbours. He conducted missions in various parts of the subcontinent, and with a small staff of helpers evangelized the region and was accessible to all who called. While on a visit to the brethren in Bombay he heard that cholera had broken out in Indore. He returned there immediately to offer what assistance he could.

In July 1882 he became sick with cholera and died the following month. Father Benson’s letters of encouragement to him in his isolation are some of the great treasures of the Society. In July 1890 on his trip to India, Father Benson visited Indore and saw the place where Father O’Neill had spent the last years of his life. On writing home to the brethren in Oxford, Father Benson wrote: When I was shown the hovel where O’Neill lived and the oratory where he spent hours in prayer, I could not help feeling that it was a more important place in the history of India than many a battlefield marked by crossed swords upon a map.

He is buried in the Christian cemetery at Indore. In 1951 the then Anglican Church of India, Pakistan and Ceylon added Father O’Neill to their calendar.

Read Br. Eldridge Pendleton’s moving sermon on Father O’Neill here.