O’Neill didn’t mince words for the crowd that had gathered.
O’Neill has often told the story of Whalen, a man who entered the priesthood when he was 66-years-old.
His late vocation came after he’d spent the better part of his life drinking. He had married and had children. He also found sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. It wasn’t enough to save his marriage, however.
Five years of trying to reconstruct his life took its toll, but it also led him to the priesthood.
After he was ordained, Whalen spent 20 years ministering from the Danielson parish. Little more than a year ago, he moved to Hartford, where the LaSalette Missionaries have a home and infirmary for sick and elderly priests and brothers.
“He shouldn’t have gotten into the priesthood,” O’Neill said with a laugh. “He had a 10,000 to one shot. He got in. He won heaven.”
O’Neill is known for his quick wit, a sporting sense of humor, and a can-do attitude when it comes to the difficult and the unusual. He has been the pastor at St. James for 25 years. Soon after O’Neill got the Danielson assignment, Whalen came to stay.
“I looked over his application,” O’Neill said. “He’d been married, had five kids, was an alcoholic. I had to find something positive.”
Whalen’s love of Boston sports teams did the trick, O’Neill quipped.
Soon after Whalen joined the parish in 1991, he began a healing oil ministry with a handful of people. The circuitous path he took to the priesthood left him with belief in the possibilities of healing. He had a fascination for angels, and a special trust in the archangel Raphael. He named the healing oil ministry after St. Raphael.
“He was convinced,” O’Neill said. “He was into it and he packed them in wherever he went.”
That ministry is now in 50 states and 28 countries according to O’Neill.
Every healing service offered people an opportunity to go to confession, attend Mass, hear a sermon, and have hands laid on them for healing. As the ministry grew, as Fr. Joe’s name became more well known, more people showed up for the services. It became too much for him to do alone.
“He asked me to do some preaching, to hear some confessions,” Fr. John Welch said.
Welch is an 83-year-old LaSalette missionary. He too is a long time resident and senior priest at St. James in Danielson. Welch called the years he served with Whalen as the best four years of his life. He and the ministry team traveled across the country holding services. Welch saw people healed spiritually. He saw some healed physically.
“I thought this must be God’s ministry,” Welch said.
“Fr. Welch was his right arm,” O’Neill said. “He lightened the load; he did the preaching. Fr Joe did the healing. The healing services revitalized him. He was always exhausted until he saw the crowd. When he saw the crowd, he lit up, just like Bob Hope.”
Whalen took his inspiration from the Old Testament’s Book of Tobit. In that story, the angel Raphael comes to the aid of a man on a journey and woman bereft.
“That story and the journey of the young man who encountered Raphael inspired him so much he wanted to do this,” Welch said. “He wanted to make the oil and pray for the intercession of St. Raphael.”
Whalen was 93-years-old when he died on Aug. 8.
“He always said he wanted to die with his boots on,” O’Neill said.
He is buried in the St. Francis Xavier Church cemetery Winooski, Vermont.
FR. JOSEPH WHALEN, M.S. FUNERAL AND BURIAL
In all ages, priests have been held in the highest honor; yet the priests of the New Testament far exceed all others. For the power of consecrating and offering the Body and Blood of our Lord and of forgiving sins, which has been conferred on them, not only has nothing equal or like to it on earth, but even surpasses human reason and understanding.