ANDERSON—Those who know Father Aubrey McNeil might be surprised that he describes himself as an introvert.
Most of those same people would probably tell you that the Franciscan friar and pastor of St. Mary of the Angels Church is a warm, funny, inviting and deeply caring person. In fact, Father Aubrey often uses the words introvert and people-person when talking about himself.
“I’m an introvert who enjoys people,” he told The Miscellany in a recent conversation at the small church campus, which is tucked away in a working-class neighborhood.
This year, the priest is celebrating his silver jubilee.
Looking back on his 25-year vocation, Father Aubrey said he credits God with steering him on a path he probably wouldn’t have taken otherwise.
The second of four children, Father Aubrey was born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, in 1945. His father worked in the coal mines in Canada before the couple decided to move the family south to Boston.
“My father worked for about 20 years in the mines and he didn’t want his children to have to do that,” he said.
Influenced by the heavily Catholic neighborhood of Mission Hill in Boston, the young man soon developed an interest in the Franciscans. He left home at age 13 to enroll in high school seminary in New York. Instead of finishing seminary, he earned a degree in nursing.
In 1967, Father Aubrey joined the Peace Corps and traveled to Ghana in West Africa where he lived for five years.
“Those years were the highlight of my life,” he said. “Where I lived, we didn’t have electricity or running water. It was very basic. You live close to the earth.”
Father Aubrey said when he left for Africa he had no intention of returning to the friars. He began to change his thinking when he returned to the United States.
He worked at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Boston for much of the 1970s. Though he truly enjoyed the job, he said, by age 34 he had reached a crossroads.
“The head nurse at the hospital was leaving and I was offered that position,” he said.
But God was leading him in a different direction.
“At the time, it was a big risk for me. They weren’t going to hold the [nursing] position for me if I decided to commit to the friars,” the priest said.
He decided to re-enter the Franciscan order and has not looked back. In fact, Father Aubrey said his time as a physical healer prepared him for moving into the spiritual side of healing.
“True healing is in the sacraments in our tradition, and I felt strength in that healing ministry developed in the physical healing performed as a nurse,” he said. “Patients responded well to me.”
Father Aubrey attended seminary at Washington Theological Union, and six years later, in 1985, he was ordained at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Md.
His first assignment as a priest was to St. Anthony of Padua Church in Camden, N.J. The community was slowly recovering from years of struggle.
“It was a small parish community — a blighted and crime-ridden community,” he said. “It was a place where friars should be.”
While in Camden, Father Aubrey and members of his order joined other parishes and faiths to form the Camden Churches Organized for People. He said he remembers going before the city council demanding that the neighborhood be cleaned up. The effort succeeded and the organization is still active today.
Father Aubrey spent four years in Camden and then returned to Africa, this time as a priest. He was assigned to a relatively new vice province in Uganda.
His order was making a conscious effort at the time to increase its presence in East Africa, and working in formation to bring African men into the Franciscans.
Father Aubrey said he welcomed the opportunity to go back, though this trip was cut short when he contracted malaria.
“I couldn’t get rid of it. Every three or four weeks I would have a relapse. I was spending more time recuperating that accomplishing anything, so I came back to the states,” he said.
Father Aubrey returned to New York to serve at the provincial office of St. Francis of Assisi in Manhattan for the next two years, then as associate director of formation for postulates at Holy Cross Church in the Bronx, where he was pastor for nine years.
In 2005, Father Aubrey was assigned to St. Mary of the Angels in South Carolina.
In each of the churches he has served, whether in New York, New Jersey or South Carolina, the parishes have been multiethnic.
“Up in the North, it was a mixture of African American, Caucasian and Puerto Rican, while down here it’s been African American, Caucasian and Hispanic,” he said. “It’s wonderful to have a mixture like that. That has been the richness of this ministry.”
In Father Aubrey’s five years at St. Mary of the Angels, membership has increased to over 400 families. He oversaw the construction and completion of a larger sanctuary, and the parish is preparing to break ground on expansion of its hall.
To some degree, Father Aubrey said, the growth has spilled over into his life as a Franciscan.
“Our philosophy is to empower the people — ask them to do things that they can do but maybe never thought they could do,” he said.
Thirty years ago, God empowered Father Aubrey to do things he never thought he could do, and he and the community he serves are very thankful for it.
“The ministry has made me live as an extrovert,” Father Aubrey said. “It’s been a rich experience.”