Father Neil Meshes Secular, Spiritual

Posted: 9/13/2006

Glenmary Father Neil PezzuloWhen, near the 11th hour, the Waldron's 2006 Fall Festival planners found themselves without stage sound control, Father Neil Pezzulo brought in his parish's sound equipment, said Amanda Sisoukrath.

It's typical behavior for the priest who is always willing to help the community in any way possible, Sisoukrath said via e-mail. Sisoukrath is secretary of the Waldron/Scott County Arkansas Community of Excellence Steering Committee.

Father Neil agreed to serve as chairman of the committee, Sisoukrath said. "In doing so, he filled a major leadership need and helped us make huge strides in this community effort," she said.

Father Neil said his secular work—he's just completed six months of jury duty (no, he didn't get picked)—has to do with his view and vision.

"You can't isolate the sacred from the secular," the Catholic priest said.

If people can't make a living to adequately support their families, their quality of life goes down, and that affects the spiritual, he said.

Father Dominic Duggins said he's known Father Neil for more than 15 years. Father Dominic is development director for Cincinnati-based Glenmary Home Missioners and Executive Council first vice president.

"Father Neil is generous to a fault when it comes to wanting to respond to the needs of people. He is a very good all-around person and sees the good in people. He is kind and meets people on their level without seeming to look down and think less or little of them. He is there for the person sitting in front of him or talking to (him) on the phone," Father Dominic stated via e-mail.

Asked why Glenmary sent the Schenectady, N.Y., native to Arkansas, Father Dominic said Glenmary serves in the poorer rural areas—the South, Southwest and Appalachia. Fathre landed in Waldron in October 2003 after Glenmary returned his former mission in Crossett and Hamburg to the Diocese of Little Rock. The Waldron and Danville mission was a new mission for Glenmary, and Father Neil was more than willing to move there, Father Dominic said.

Father Neil pastors St. Jude Thaddeus Church in Waldron and St. Andrew Catholic Church in Danville. He is Waldron's first resident Catholic priest. He also pastored Sacred Heart Chapel in Heavener for about two years until it was moved to the Booneville pastor, he said.

Asked why Waldron, Father Neil grinned. "Part of it is Catholic priests are assigned," he said.

Glenmary works solely in rural areas where the Catholic church is not firmly established. Its mission is to build a sustainable community, he said. "We work for issues of justice, fair pay for fair work ... for local folks to work to connect the local Catholic church and the universal Catholic Church," Father Neil said.

Once that sustainable community is built, Glenmary returns the parish to the diocese, its rightful pastor, and moves on, he said. Although the day he leaves may be sad for him, it's a great day for the parishioners because they're seeing the fruit of their work and sacrifice, Father Neil said.

Ministry's Motive

Sisoukrath said she's found Father Neil to be straightforward and motivated.

Father Neil said he believes the parish is the launching pad for the community.

"I live here, too, and I want a high quality of life. I don't want to see crime in my town and abuse," Father Neil said.

He said establishing a more diverse economy, attracting small industry with good-paying jobs will create an environment that offers opportunities and slows the drug-related issues that have been prevalent in rural Scott County. It will increase the tax base, benefiting schools, Father Neil said.

As a priest, he doesn't get a salary and isn't a taxpayer, he said. But he said he should give back to the community because he has the same access to taxpayer-paid services and amenities.

Father Neil also works with the local Ministers Fellowship and is involved with HIV and AIDS education and prevention efforts through the Department of Human Services' Arkansas Regional Planning and Education Group.

Father Neil attended DeSales School of Theology and the Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C. Ordained in September 1999, he spent two months at a Cuernavaca, Mexico, language institute, studying Spanish in preparation for his first pastor assignment in southeast Arkansas. He wouldn't be a stranger - he'd served part of his novitiate in Crossett and Hamburg in 1993.

What drew the former shoe salesman and labor union organizer to the priesthood?

"If there is such a thing as a call, it came to me while I was a junior in college. I was in church on Ash Wednesday, and turned to my girlfriend and said ‘I could do that,' and she said, ‘Shh, don't talk in church,'" Father Neil said.

Hospitality Of Language

Sisoukrath said Father Neil's bilingual skills have been a great asset.

Father Neil downplays his Spanish language skills while praising that of his co-workers. He works with Brothers Craig Digmann and David Henley, and lay missioner/Pastoral Associate Kathy O'Brien. O'Brien and Henley are proficient in Spanish. Henley works in Danville, which is entirely Spanish-speaking, Father Neil said. Digmann is strengthening his Spanish skills, the priest said.

The parish has grown during Father Neil's tenure. In 2003, four children attended. Now more than 100 do, Father Neil said. Most of the children are Spanish-speaking. About 45 adults regularly attend the Spanish Mass while more than 60 attend the English-language Mass, he said.

"Probably the thing I'm most proud of, and I hope I'm not being arrogant, is we've established a feeling of hospitality ... that people feel welcome here," Father Neil said.

Father Neil said he enjoys the variety his job offers - "even with the pains in the neck, it's fun."

"I've had some great moments when I see the hand of God at work, whether in the confessional or not, when I see the light come on over their heads," the priest said.

Stress build though. Working with the poor can be draining. To recharge, Father Neil goes kayaking - on the city lake when he's alone, and on the river when he has a companion.

Father Neil said he's lucky to have friends from outside the church with whom he can relax. Frequent e-mails with old college friends and family help.

Father Neil said his favorite quote, and he's not sure of the source, is: "‘How do you define priesthood? And the answer is, it's relentless, but I wouldn't have it any other way.'"

This photo and story first appeared in the Sept. 24, 2006, issue of the Times-Record, Ft. Smith, Ark. It is reprinted with permission.