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Archives ‘Giving Him more space in which to work’

March 4, 2020

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in what’s planned to be an ongoing series featuring how Catholics of the Diocese of Ogdensburg are living out their faith. To suggest an individual to be featured in this series, please call the North Country Catholic at 315-393-2920 or email dfargo@rcdony.org.

By Darcy Fargo

MASSENA – After an experience that turned her to God and her Catholic faith as a young adult, Candace O’Neill has continued to try to follow the Lord’s calling in her life, including making moves toward a major career change at age 49.

“I’m a cradle Catholic,” O’Neill said. “I went to Catholic school a couple years growing up, and I made my sacraments. (My parents) practiced (their faith) and had us do so. Their example was huge! But like many young adults, I hit a period when I wasn’t really practicing how I should. Then, when I was 30-ish, the only way I can describe it is that God called me to Him.”

O’Neill said she was living in a small town in Texas at the time, and the parish she was attending was looking for a Director of Religious Education (DRE).

“I knew I wasn’t qualified,” she said. “My only qualification was that I was Catholic. But I kept feeling that tug. I kept feeling God was calling me to that position. After a couple weeks seeing the announcement in the bulletin, I applied. I was called for an interview, and I got the job. Because of that, I had to up my game. If I was going to teach kids, I had to know my faith better.”

After that, O’Neill learned to pray the Rosary and deepened her relationship with the Lord.

“I became just so in love with my faith and with Jesus,” she said. “He moved me in amazing ways. That was kind of the beginning of it.”

A couple years later, O’Neill moved to Massena, where a lay minister invited her to participate in two small groups aimed at mothers.

“One was a moms and tots type of group, mostly for stay-at-home moms,” she said. “But then once a month, a group of mothers would gather together and discuss faith. It was the first time in my life I was surrounded by other women who shared the strong faith and belief in God that I had. To share openly and learn from each other was amazing. We had older women I would describe as mentors who guided us early on. I think seeing them and their faith solidified it for the rest of us. While the younger mothers eventually broke off on their own, we maintained that group for 10 years, and probably the best friends I have here in Massena are people who were originally part of that group. Seeing people living their faith really encouraged me.”

O’Neill said her faith was also bolstered by the Trinity Catholic School community and Family Life/Youth Ministry activities.

“I originally volunteered at Trinity when my kids went there,” she said. “I eventually got hired (as Advancement director for the school). Being immersed in the community there was a beautiful thing.”

While working at Trinity, a Massena lay minister suggested O’Neill and her family attend Family Guggenheim.
“My kids went to teen camp, but we had never done family camp,” she said. “We started attending Family Camp and eventually were invited to be on staff. It was an amazing experience being surrounded by wonderful, faith-filled families. My family also started attending March for Life and Franciscan University of Steubenville teen conferences. Seeing the faith of people from outside this area has also been helpful.”

Seeing her children, Josh, McKenna, Aidan, Brendan and Liam, living their faith has also been a major source of inspiration for O’Neill.

“I know I helped guide their foundation in faith, but they inspire me so often with what they do and the courage they have as it relates to their faith,” she said. “When the twins (Aidan and Brendan) started middle school, on the very first day, one of them wanted to wear and ‘I love Jesus’ shirt. I thought it might be social suicide. A piece of me wanted to tell him not to wear it, but he wore it, and he wore shirts like that often. It really inspired me to be more open about my faith.”

O’Neill said she has also been strengthened in her faith participating in ministries. She serves as a lector, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and is involved in music ministry.

“Music is a huge component for me and my family,” she said. “We make an effort to listen to Christian music on a regular basis. It’s probably 70 percent of what we listen to. So many times, you find yourself singing a song that’s in your head. If you’re listening to music that doesn’t have a good message, it still reverberates in your brain, even when you’re not thinking about it. By listening to Christian music, it’s those messages that are in our heads. It keeps me focused.”

Developing relationships with other faith-filled people has also been critical for her faith development, O’Neill said.

“Relationships are huge,” she said. “It’s nice to have other people who reflect that it’s ok to live with faith in a secular world. We may not always be able to speak about our faith in our workplaces or other aspects of life but having other people who stand by you and stand by the faith is huge.”

O’Neill said she reconnected with a former schoolmate at her 30th high school reunion and discovered the former classmate is a devout Catholic.

“We went to a Mercy Me concert together,” she said. “Then we started calling each other every morning at 6 a.m. We’d open the readings for the day and read them together, and we’d each read a reflection about the readings. We’re on hiatus now, but that was a great experience.”

The hiatus was precipitated by O’Neill’s decision to follow where she felt God was calling her, leaving her position at Trinity Catholic School to enroll in college to study nursing.

“I really felt the nudge, like God was calling me to the nursing program,” she said. “I think of all the ways God has opened doors for me to take care of the things I was worried about, that made me think this wasn’t possible, and I know this came from Him. It was just one thing after another, with obstacles being taken out of my way.”

God has also helped her persist through hardships with the nursing program.

“I had a degree already, so I thought it would be a breeze,” she said. “Then I had to accept early on that I wasn’t going to get all As. I had no idea how hard it would be. There have been times I’ve felt like giving up, but He manages to give me the inspiration I need to continue on. God is making me stretch and grow through this process.”

Her early interactions with patients have also helped her be assured that she’s on the right path.

“I’m able to discuss faith and God with my patients,” she said. “I’ve come to realize how in need they are. It’s so evident they want someone, especially when they’re scared, lonely and sick. They want someone to be there for them. Sometimes, they want someone to pray with them. I feel that’s God’s plan for me – to be there with them and touch them in that way.”

As she goes through nursing school and transitioning her children into adulthood, O’Neill said she maintains her connection to the Lord through prayer.

“Last Lent, as I was going to (Trinity) for work, I’d see one of my colleagues, Kathy Behrens, going into Sacred Heart Church before school started,” O’Neill said. “I asked her if she was going in to pray for a few minutes. She told me it helped make her days better. I started doing that for Lent. I once had a friend tell me she would get huge peace just sitting there before the Tabernacle. I thought I would never feel that, that stuff like that doesn’t happen to me. After talking to Kathy, I started going to church before school. After a few weeks, I couldn’t believe how much I craved going there. Sometimes, I’d even go at night. Most of the time, I was there by myself, so if I felt the urge to sing, I could sing at the top of my lungs. Or I’d just sit quietly and listen. It made a huge difference in my life. I can’t explain it or describe it, but I know it made a difference for me.”

That faith relationship has also been bolstered by the priests and consecrated religious who have served in her Massena community.

“While I grew up Catholic, we never really knew priests,” she said. “When I started as the DRE in Texas, I got to know the priest, and he was one of the holiest men I’ve ever met. It was the first time I was able to see priests as real people.”

Since then, O’Neill has had occasion to get to know a number of priests and religious sisters.

“They’ve always inspired me and been so kind to my family,” she said. “I can’t express how blessed we’ve been.”
O’Neill said she encourages everyone to be open to hearing the Lord.

“Everyone is on their own faith journey and I would just encourage people to be open,” she said. “Try to go to church, go the sacraments and pray, but know there are highs and lows for everyone. I am not always ‘feeling it,’ but by placing myself in the presence of God at church, through the sacraments, Godly people, Godly music, readings, concerts, camps, experiences, etc. I am amplifying all the ways he can teach and reach me. I am giving Him more space in which to work.”

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