Honoring our co-founder Father John McNeill

We lost a great one. Father John McNeill, S.J. was an openly gay moral theologian, psychotherapist and Jesuit priest, who helped to found the Upper Room AIDS Ministry—which later became Harlem United. At the height of the AIDS epidemic in New York City, many agencies were turning away those who needed care the most. That just wouldn’t do for Fr. McNeil and the others who founded the Upper Room AIDS Ministry. They believed that we are in this together and set out to offer hope, health, and healing to Harlem and beyond.

Fr. John McNeill passed away late last month at the age of 90 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We celebrate his life and legacy—and honor his memory.

Reverend Ella Eaton, Harlem United’s long-time Chaplain, was close to Father McNeill and remembers him, and his ministry, fondly. “I remember him as one who appeared to be authentic in his pastoral ministry. He disclosed that he was a gay priest and sought to be able to offer his very life to help someone in need. And his life was a testimony to this endeavor, “she said.

Fr. McNeill, author of The Church and the Homosexual (1976) publicly pressed the Catholic Church to welcome gay men and lesbians and was expelled from his order as a result. In his book, published with permission of his Jesuit superior after a delay of several years, McNeill wrote that,

“…the Churches’ attitude towards homosexuality is another example of structured social injustice, equally based in questionable interpretations of Scripture, prejudice and blind adherence to merely human traditions, traditions which have been falsely interpreted as the law of nature and of God. In fact, as we have seen, it is the same age-old tradition of male controls, domination and oppression of women which underlies the oppression of the homosexual.”

Fr. McNeill saw a need to serve the sick and needy in Harlem. McNeill co-founded the New York chapter of DignityUSA, an LGBT Catholic Group. And, with two other formerly homeless men, he helped to create the Upper Room AIDS Ministry in 1988. One surviving founder is an active client at Harlem United.

According to Reverend Ella, it was McNeill’s idea to name the organization after the “Upper Room”, a Biblical reference to where the Holy Spirit was dispensed to the apostles to heal the sick. The organization in the beginning had just two core programs – housing and social day care – as well as a small para-professional staff. Reverend Ella was hired in 1992 and she remembers that Fr. John provided pastoral counseling, support groups; he would take clients on rural retreats and donated funding.

“He was a brilliant and so humble, and he offered love without judgment,” Reverend Ella said.

The Upper Room AIDS Ministry changed its name to Harlem United in 1995 to emphasize the non-sectarian nature of our work. Currently, URAM is a subsidiary, and holds all of our medical services.

The legacy of Father John McNeill is manifested in our work every day.

Read more about the life of Father John McNeill in these two articles:

New York Times: “John McNeill, Priest Who Pushed Catholic Church to Welcome Gays, Dies at 90”

Gay City News: “Father John McNeill, Gay Catholic Pioneer, Dead at 90”

Photo by Charles Chiarelli