A Moment in Time: December 1963

Written by Harold McNeill on January 6th, 2014. Posted in Family 1940 1965


Harold-and-Father-Hill2

December 2010:  (Dallas Road, Victoria, at the Breakwater): The path to peace of mind and happiness can be elusive. When these two men were young, how did their lives intersect? It was just a Moment in Time.
January 2017 Update (1171)
January 2018 (1230)

Finding a path through life.

Just over a half century ago, at the tender age of twenty-two, I left Cold Lake, Alberta, to embark upon a new life in British Columbia. Only one time prior had I been more than three hundred miles from my home in Cold Lake, that being while attending the Fire Department, Crash Rescue Training at Camp Borden, Ontario (Firewalkers).

I had never been to the Rocky Mountains, never smelled the pungent odour of ocean air and never walked along a fog shrouded, craggy coastline. From my apartment on Michigan Street in the James Bay of Victoria, I can still remember the mournful sound of the foghorn at Trial Island. For a born and bred prairie boy, it was the stuff of dreams and I was living the dream – almost!

Here I was a thousand miles from home and living on a lush green Pacific Island, but to say I was homesick to the very core of my beingBernadette would be an understatement. A large part of the reason  – I was in love and desperately missed the young woman from Cold Lake with whom I had been ‘going steady’ for several months. We had talked of marriage and at one point I had even bought a ring, but we had not progressed to a final decision as she was committed to two more years of study at the University of Alberta.  Another challenge – she was Catholic and I, well, somewhat less than ‘non-denominational’.

My mother knew how badly I felt as she had taken those late night, tearful phone calls from her distraught little boy. It did not help that it would soon be Christmas’ and I had always spent my Christmas’s at home or with my sister Louise. Sometimes during the calls, we would both be in tears, as she knew the feelings all too well, having gone through a similar time when she was young (Laura Isabel Wheeler Biography).

Later in my life, I would listen as my own children hit the brick wall of lonesome: Kari in Banff and Sean in England. Sean’s lonesome was also tangled with ‘love’ for that special someone he had met while in his final year of High School. Funny, I don’t recall Christine having gone through the trauma of that first lonesome; she always seemed so comfortable within herself.

Now, have I misled you as I set the scene for this story, not only with the introduction but also the photo to the right (c1962). These may suggest a love story, but that is not entirely the case. If you stay with me for a few more paragraphs you will find that while this young lady played an important part, that part was more to do with pushing me to explore new pathways in my life.

In Canada, fifty years ago (perhaps it is still the same today), in order to marry a Catholic girl, particularly a French Canadian Catholic girl, one had to convert to the faith. This was not optional. Becoming a Catholic was something I never remotely considered, after all, Catholics could not eat meat on Friday and had to attend church every Sunday as well as on numerous other occasions. They also had strict rules which covered not only what they did, but also what they thought.  Did you ever try to drop a sinful thought?

426968_10150611835497529_538848941_nWhen it came to sin the Catholic system was strict and I was a little troubled about this. I say this because, in my few short years on earth, I had had some first-hand experience with sin – nothing exceptional of course (my definition), but just enough to leave me wondering. Also, a good many of my Catholic friends (we went to Separate Schools together…) had experimented with sin. I knew this because on more than one occasion I was part of the experiment. I am reasonably certain that had it not been for them, I would have followed the straight and narrow…hmmm. Oh, one final thing about sin thing and something that greatly concerned me – after sinning (no matter how small or large), it was necessary to confess the sin to some guy behind a curtain. That was not something thrilling to anticipate.

Even with this all in mind and just before Christmas in 1963, while feeling particularly low, I dropped by St. Andrews Cathedral to seek advice. A few friends have since suggested a greater force than love propelled me. But, for the purposes of this story, unrequited love, combined with a good dose of homesickness, was sufficient. My first challenge – get over the threshold.

Catholic Cathedrals are pretty intimidating places, particularly to the great unwashed. The above photo was taken in 2011 just after the Ash Wednesday Service I attended with cousin’s Helen and Leonard. The historical cruciform architecture, heavy stained glass, row upon row of dark brown, wooden pews, immense space, penetrating silence and dozens of paintings of stern-looking individuals watching every movement and reading every thought, made it difficult for a ‘newbie’ to feel comfortable. It seemed the building was designed more to intimidate than comfort.  My discomfort, however, vanished the moment I met Father William Hill (opening photo).

When Father Hill, a mild-mannered, soft-spoken man in his mid-thirties, introduced himself, I was sure he sensed he was in the presence of a lost soul. His words suggested he really cared and was not just playing a priestly role. Father Hill, you see, had his own ‘lost soul years’ during which time the path to the priesthood was revealed. His full conversion had not happened until he was in his early thirties, so at least I had a little breathing space before I might be guided along the same path. His first steps in putting me at ease were to recount a bit of his own life story.

Heinkel_He_111_during_the_Battle_of_BritainBorn in England in 1926, (just eight years after my own mother was born in Canada), he lived through the Great Depression, then the horrors of World War II. He vividly recalled German bomber formations flying over his parent’s farm as they set course for London and, later, watched as British and German fighter pilots fought pitched battles high above the White Cliffs of Dover. It was a terrifying time when his parents, friends, and neighbours were not at all certain peace would come in their lifetime.

When the war finally ended, his parents decided to pack their worldly possessions and head to Canada for a fresh start. In his late teens, William ended up in British Columbia. He was a hard worker and held a variety of part-time jobs, but it was mountains and logging, something very different from his life in England, that drew his greatest interest. Over the first few years, it was all new and exciting, but as time marched on, it began to take its toll as he searched for greater meaning in his life.

At one point he found himself standing in a small Catholic church in the interior of BC where a young Priest, not much older than himself, took an interest in him. This visit was the first step in finding a new path that eventually led to his ordination. Just one year after taking his vows the two of us were sitting and chatting in the Rectory of St. Andrews Cathedral in Victoria.

As our weekly meetings continued, I immersed myself in catechism lessons following a reference text titled: “My Catholic Faith” (then a red covered book published in 1946 and updated in 1954). Anyone who has had a chance to read the little Red Book will understand it is heavy going. The church, I found, made some serious demands upon those who wished to enter. The penalties for misbehaving were significant and as for leaving the church….well, let’s not go there.

Not many months later, having studied the Canadian Criminal Code in depth as the Police Academy in Vancouver, it was not difficult to pick out the prescriptive parallels between the two books. In fact, when it came to major transgressions (Catholics refer to them as “Mortal” sins), the church stance was much more severe.  At least in Canada, we have realized the ‘death penalty’ is considered “cruel and unusual”, and has removed it from the code. Even at that, I thought, “in for a penny, in for a pound.” It would only decades later I understood that was the way of the Catholic Church – plant so much fear in the hearts of congregants they cannot help but stick around.  Just read that little red book or scan the pictures.  But, that is today, now back to decades earlier.

The best part my study time, was meeting and chatting with Father Hill. He was engaging and never hesitated to talk about challenges in his own life and even those he faced within the church. I soon realized that many of the questions we asked and faced were similar.

After a few months, I was considered sufficiently worthy and was baptized in the Cathedral. As you can only be baptized once and I had never been baptized, the bonus was washing away all previous sin. I do not mean this to sound trite, because, at the time, I truly believed that which I had studied and with that belief, I carried out the vows with all sincerity. (Photo right: c1964 Link to Story)photo of harold in 1966 resized

It was a defining moment in my life, but, as fate would have it, the young woman and I never married, nor did we ever meet again. My time of intense study, however, was not lost for it not only sustained me through a very difficult period in my life, it also inspired me toward further reading, study, and reflection upon that which my present-day beliefs reside.

For years I kept that voluminous Red Book and often referred to it whenever a theological question arose that peeked my interest. How might a Catholic deal with the question? Needless to say, from those days forward, I found a path that sustained and gave me peace in life, although that path was not within the Catholic Church or within any traditional Christian teaching. I now fast forward to the spring of 2008, almost 50 years after first meeting Father Hill in St. Andrews Cathedral.

By chance, my wife, Lynn, and I were on View Street (just around the corner from the Cathedral) doing a promotion for a Scotties Curling event being hosted in Victoria. I took a moment to slip into the Cathedral Office to inquire if someone might remember Father Hill. To my surprise, I learned he had just retired to Victoria a few months earlier. The next day we managed to connect by phone, but it turned out our travel plans were such that we were both heading in different directions. It would be a further two years before we again managed to chat and set up a date for lunch.

One week and forty-seven years after we first met as young men, we had lunch in a small restaurant on Dallas Road near the Breakwater, just a few blocks from where I first lived after arriving in Victoria. As with two people meeting after a lapse of nearly half a century, there was much to talk about. That our lives had taken different paths was evident.

Father Hill spent a large part of his fifty years working as a Parish Priest but, along the way, he managed to fit in a few years at the Vatican as well as a two-year study sabbatical in Belgium. During his time on the other side of the world, he shared a number of interesting adventures with fellow priests while on holiday trips throughout Central and Northeastern Europe. (1)

At one point, just a few years before he retired, Father Hill was nearly killed while on a driving holiday in New Brunswick. When rounding a curve a logging truck lost control, jack-knifed and crushed his car. When rushed to hospital he was near death with both legs crushed and severe internal injuries. It took many stitches and pins to rebuild his legs and the rest of his body, but he was eventually able to drop his crutches, then canes and now walks with only a slight limp.

He laughed when he told me how he now sets off all kinds of alarms when checking in for a flight. He mused: “How ironic it would have been had I been killed by that logging truck. My life would have come full circle.” This gives just an inkling of the positive attitude Father Hill brings to life and death.

After sharing more stories of our lives, it was clear Father Hill was far from ordinary and, I suspect, like many others who have followed a call to the church, Father Hill was propelled by a sincere desire to bring comfort to those in need. He certainly helped me at a difficult point in my life. It seems his calling was not that dissimilar to my own as we both gravitated toward the humanities and ended up selecting a career where we were able to help others.

A two-hour lunch was a pitifully short time to cover fifty years, but I suspect our meeting would not be the last. Perhaps one day Father Hill may find time to do more writing, something that has become one of his interests in recent years. His new challenge, however, is overcoming his failing eyesight. Perhaps that is just another challenge over which he will prevail?

May 2011: I again met Father Hill when he accepted an invitation to attend a birthday BBQ for Lynn at our home. It was another great visit and this time I was able to introduce him to Lynn, other members of our family and a sprinkling of friends.  All this happened because at one point in my life I met and fell in love with a young woman, a woman who inspired me to undertake a spiritual journey.

Victoria, BC
December 2013

(1) For instance, the time he and three other young priests drove across much of Europe in an ‘old beater’ that worked on only three of the four cylinders and why they happened to be using Italian Diplomatic Licence Plates.

(1306)

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Comments

  • Andrew Dunn

    May 14, 2019 |

    Thank you so much for all your help thus far Harold, aka. Tractor guy! I could not have done without you!

  • Harold McNeill

    April 25, 2019 |

    I find it interesting to contemplate how a small community evolves in general isolation from the rest of the world. We have a similar situation in the northern communities in Canada to which access is limited. The inclusion of the world wide web and mass media has changed things, but these communities are still left pretty much to their own devices when it comes to personal interaction.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 19, 2019 |

    Hi Dave. Not that I am aware and I have a fairly comprehensive family tree for the McNeill side of the family. I will pull it up and scan. Cheers, Harold. Great chatting with you and I will give Ben a nudge.

  • Dave Cassels

    March 16, 2019 |

    Were you related to Guy McNeill who owned the Bruin Inn in St. Albert in the late 40’s or early 50’s? Guy was a close friend of my father-in-law who was the first President of the Royal Glenora Club. My phone number is 780 940 1175. Thank you.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 15, 2019 |

    So glad you found the story and enjoyed. Indeed, they were memorable times. I did a fair amount of searching but never managed to contact any of the Murffit kids. However, it was neat to make contact with the Colony and someone I knew from back in the day. I have enjoyed writing these stories from back in the 1940s and 50s and have made contact with a lot of friends from those early years. I will give you a call over the weekend. Cheers, Harold

  • Yvonne (Couture) Richardson

    March 7, 2019 |

    I enjoyed your story. I too, lived in Pibroch in 1951, as my parents owned the hotel there. I was a very close friend of Bonnie Murfitt at the time. I moved to Edmonton in 1952, however, and have not seen her since. I would like to be in touch with you to talk about your story. My email is listed above and my phone number is 780-475-3873.

  • Laureen Kosch/Patry

    March 5, 2019 |

    I grew up in Pibroch and would not trade those years for anything. “ Kids don’t know how to play anymore” Never was a truer statement made. During the summer we were out the door by 8am, home for lunch, and back when it got dark. For the most part our only toys were our bikes and maybe a baseball mitt. I will never forget the times when all the kids got together in “Finks field” for a game of scrub baseball. Everybody was welcome, kids from 8 to 18. I didn’t know it then but I guess I had a childhood most dream of. Drove thru town last summer. It all looked a lot smaller.

  • Harold McNeill

    January 13, 2019 |

    Well, my dear, it’s that time again. How the years fly by and the little ones grow but try as you may you will have a hard time catching up to your Daddy. Lots of love young lady and may your day be special
    Love, Dad

  • Harold McNeill

    January 5, 2019 |

    Guess what? My response went to the Spam folder. Hmm, do you suppose the system is trying to tell me something?

  • Harold McNeill

    January 5, 2019 |

    Thanks, Terrance. Your comment came through but went to the Spam folder. Have pulled it out and approved. Can you send another on this post to see if you name is now removed from Spam? I’m not sure why it does that. Cheers, Harold