By Dave Jolivet
FALL RIVER — It started 43 years ago as a personal tribute to his beloved father who had passed away a few months earlier, and it has led to thousands of people being lifted spiritually and inspirationally around the world.
In 1979 William F. O’Neil, a member of the Fall River Police Department, lost his father. “I knew my mom would have Masses offered for my dad’s soul, but I wanted to do something more, something special for me to do for him,” O’Neil told The Anchor in a recent interview. “I asked God to grace me with the discipline to pray the Rosary for him. I always had a difficult time praying it. It takes discipline to meditate on the mysteries.”
O’Neil said that in June of 1980, “I received a gift from God — the ability and the discipline to fervently pray the Rosary. I’ve been saying it at least once a day since.”
O’Neil said that he gained that gift when attending a meeting of the then-St. Anne’s Fellowship in Fall River. “There was a guest speaker, Doris Bernier, who spoke about Marian devotion and the importance and the power of the Rosary.” He said that is when he became able to pray it.
But his devotion to praying the Rosary didn’t stop there. “I always liked working with my hands and thought about making sets of Rosaries for others to share the gift that I was given,” he said. “I was put in touch with Our Lady’s Rosary Makers in Kentucky, and from them I learned the technique and also bought the supplies from them.”
The Rosary making wasn’t just a whim or a short-lived fad for O’Neil. Just a few months back, he completed his 200,000th set of Rosary beads. The total is mind-boggling. And the beads have been shared locally, and have made their way to places all over the world.
“When I started back in the early 80s, it was slow going at first,” O’Neil told The Anchor. “I was new at it, plus I had my job on the force that took up much of my time.” But he persisted, slowly at first and then became more adept at the task. “I mostly made and still make chord Rosaries, but I did learn to make chain beads as well. I like to make the chain beads for First Communion children.”
O’Neil would make the chain beads for the Communion and Confirmation students at his parish, Saints Peter and Paul in Fall River. Then when St. Pete’s closed and he attended St. Jean the Baptist Parish he continued his tradition. And again when St. Jean’s closed and he became a parishioner of Holy Trinity Parish in Fall River.
In 1999, O’Neil retired from the police force, “And then I kicked it up a notch with regards to Rosary making. Others heard of what I was doing and I started to teach others the craft.”
Holy Trinity pastor, Father Robert Oliveira told The Anchor, “Bill has for many years generously provided Rosary beads to the missions and especially to a number of shut-ins in the parish. For years he also shared his gifts with our young friends in the parish school community.
“Bill is a daily communicant and his presence at daily Mass is a living testimony to the mysteries he weaves on those special beads. Recently he stood as a sponsor for one of his grandchildren for Confirmation. Now retired from the Fall River Police department, he even now continues to share his guardianship of care and support in a special way by the Rosary pathway inspired by Mary’s fiat.”
O’Neil started to get requests from other parishes and individuals for the prayer beads, and when it came to that, “no” wasn’t in his vocabulary.
But God had even bigger plans for O’Neil’s talent and passion.
Father Roger J. Landry, the interim Executive Editor of The Anchor relayed a story about O’Neil’s willingness to share his talents. “In 1999, when I was a baby priest at Saints Peter and Paul Parish, we had a missionary from the Sudan present a homily one Sunday,” Father Landry told The Anchor. “At the time, the Sudan was war-torn and a very dangerous place to be, especially for Catholics trying to live their faith. He told the congregation that it was dangerous for his parishioners to go to Mass, so they would gather for Mass in the early morning hours, and it was a 20-mile journey and snipers would at times shoot at the faithful as they made their perilous journey. The missionary told us that his people wanted Rosary beads to carry with them because should they be wounded, they wanted the last words they spoke to be ‘And pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.’
“Right during the homily Bill stood up and told the priest, ‘I will deliver 1,000 Rosaries to you tomorrow morning.’ At 7 a.m. the following morning, Bill was there with the 1,000 Rosaries. He is such a faithful and humble man.”
O’Neil’s handiwork also made it’s way to Kenya. “I was put into contact with Father John O’Mahoney SMA [Society of African Missions], a priest from Ireland who served God’s people in Kenya. They had a need for Rosary beads there and many of the sets I made were sent there,” said O’Neil. “And when Father O’Mahoney went back to Ireland, I sent Rosary beads there as well.” Father O’Mahoney died in 2008, but O’Neil did get to meet his friend during a visit to Dublin with his wife Barbara.
Next on the docket for O’Neil was becoming friends with Father Leo Polselli, CSC, a chaplain at Family Rosary at the Father Peyton Center in Easton, part of Holy Cross Family Ministries.
“Now, when I amass a batch of 400-600 sets, I deliver them to Father Leo at Family Rosary,” said O’Neil.
“Bill has donated thousands of beautifully crafted Rosaries over the years, and he embodies the spirit of hundreds of volunteers who allow us to get Rosaries to believers all over the world,” Father Leo Polselli told The Anchor. “Bill is devout, prayerful, and kind; his quiet nature speaks to his humility, and his work ethic is evident in all of his generous work for the faith.”
Family Rosary delivers more that one million Rosaries a year covering 17 countries. Just another example of O’Neil’s labor of love reaching all over the globe.
“The Rosary can do so much for people and bring great healing to families,” Father Polselli continued. “I pray the Rosary every morning on the treadmill. You can pray the Rosary while taking a walk outside, really any quiet moments you can find in your day. Even on the days when you feel unfocused, there is a sense of accomplishment after praying the Rosary; a sense that you have made an effort to find an opportunity to connect with God — and that can be more powerful and fruitful than we can even try to understand in the moment. The world could use more Rosary prayer, and Bill and people like Bill make that possible for more and more people to go to Mary through the Rosary, and to ultimately become closer to Jesus.”
O’Neil shared a story about when he was still with the FRPD. “I was recovering from a surgery so I had desk duty,” he told The Anchor. “I decided to make a set of Rosaries for all of the day shift; men and women in the office, on the beat and even the chief. He gratefully accepted them and I don’t even think he was Catholic. I don’t know who was or who wasn’t Catholic, but only two people declined the gift.”
Despite O’Neil’s having passed the 200,000 mark on Rosaries made, it’s praying it that brings him the most joy, peace and consolation. “There was a time on the force when I was suffering from PTSD,” he shared. “As a police officer, there is a lot of stress. It’s not always life-threatening issues, but there is a lot of stress and it was building up inside me and I was bringing it home. After a couple of heart scares, a doctor friend of mine told me it was stress and I had to relax. I found meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary brought me a great deal of peace. It still does.”
O’Neil prays on average about four Rosaries a day, and he is still making the beads for local students and individuals, and is still delivering hundreds to Father Polselli.
“I could make the beads in my sleep,” O’Neil said. “But the hands aren’t as nimble as they once were, so I’ve slowed a bit.” But anyone who knows O’Neil knows that even in his “slow” mode, he is still one of the best Rosary makers around.
What started 42 years ago as a gift for his late dad, and a gift for his own spirituality, has since spread across the world. There may be 20 mysteries of the Rosary, but it’s no mystery where Bill O’Neil’s heart lies — in praying and sharing the peace and comfort of the Rosary.
Holy Week, Easter come alive with praying the Rosary for O’Neil
By Dave Jolivet
FALL RIVER — In the midst of Holy Week and the Easter Triduum and season beginning, former Fall River policeman and a parishioner of Holy Trinity Parish in that city, William F. O’Neil, shared with The Anchor what the Rosary means to him, particularly during this holiest of seasons.
O’Neil, 88, recently passed the 200,000 mark in Rosaries made to share with thousands around the world. But his true passion is praying the Rosary he so loves to share.
“Since I started praying the Rosary [four a day, most days], it has expanded my understanding of the Gospels relating to the passion, death and Resurrection of Christ,” O’Neil told The Anchor. “And the most important understanding I receive is the Eucharistic person of Jesus.
“At the Last Supper, Jesus shares with His Apostles His Body and Blood. He, sinless, shares His very self with sinners. God manifests Himself in different ways. And the Rosary leads me to reflect on that, especially during Holy Week and Easter.”
A few years back, before his beloved wife Barbara died, they made a pilgrimage to Israel. “In the Holy Land, I found a much deeper understanding of self through the Rosary,” said O’Neil. “Contemplating on the Sorrowful Mysteries in the land where it all happened showed me something I never before reflected on — withholding love from others.
“In the Agony in the Garden, Jesus is denied love from His best friends who couldn’t stay awake with and for Him. I realized there in Israel, where Jesus experienced that withholding of love, that I too, do that at times. We all do. When my children were growing up and they angered me in some way and I felt they weren’t listening, I would withhold love to my own children. Contemplating on that in the land where it happened was an awakening for me and it changed the way I acted, or at least I try to change.”
O’Neil said that when St. Pope John Paul II introduced the new Luminous Mysteries, it was a long time coming. “Why it took hundreds of years for that to come along, I don’t know,” he said. “But it was God’s plan, and ultimately it came to be. Those mysteries bring the Resurrection and what followed to life for me.
“During Holy Week and Easter, and year round for that matter, the Rosary helps me understand better the Gospels and what God is trying to convey to His children.”