Monsignor James O’Neill delivers mass in 2014. (Courtesy Diocese of Cheyenne - Matthew Potter)

When a young priest came to Wyoming from Ireland in 1954 for his first assignment, he had no idea what to expect.

“He told me he was shocked when he came to Wyoming,” said St. Patrick’s Catholic Church pastor Father Gary Ruzicka. “Like ‘where am I and what place is this!'”

Making the transition from lush, green Ireland to the high desert of Wyoming would test anyone’s ability, but Ruzicka says O’Neill quickly fell in love with Wyoming and its people.

Ruzicka and many Catholics in Wyoming are mourning the loss of Monsignor O’Neill, who died on Monday at age 89.

Ruzicka says he doesn’t think O’Neill originally intended to come to America.

“I suppose there were a lot of young men in Ireland who wanted to serve God and serve people,” said Ruzicka.

When O’Neill met a Wyoming missionary in Ireland, he became fascinated with the idea of visiting. “He had no idea where it was or what it looked like,” said Ruzicka.

O’Neill served at St. Mary’s in Cheyenne starting in 1954, before eventually moving to St. Anthony’s and finally St. Patrick’s in Casper.

“He was an Irishman, and as an Irishman he always seemed to have a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face,” said Ruzicka, who knew O’Neill for 45-years.

“He had quite a dry humor, which was really refreshing and enjoyable.”

Ruzicka says O’Neill was a person who always thought of others and to put them at ease.

“He always had time for people,” he said.

“He was a person of great compassion, especially for people who were hurting,” said Ruzicka. O’Neill would often visit the hospital and spend hours talking to the sick, listening to their stories.

O’Neill performed mass on television for years, starting soon after his health started to deteriorate.

He was often on oxygen and walked with assistance or a cane.

“His health was a problem, and he struggled for years but he never complained,” said Ruzicka.

“One of the remarks he said to me in this last year, ‘you know I’ve lived in Wyoming more than any other place in my life and this is my home,'” said Ruzicka. O’Neill asked to be buried here.

Ruzicka says O’Neill’s passing on Monday brought sadness, but also joy.

“For us when you’re Christians and Catholics, death is not the end of things…it’s the beginning of life,” said Ruzicka, “especially when you’ve led a good life.”

“He was kind of a rascal, but he led a good life.”

A funeral mass for Monsignor James O’Neill will start at 10:30 a.m. at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on Friday, with a burial following at Highland Cemetery. Both are open to the public.