WelCom News
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Stroke all part of a graced life for Taradale priest

KevinNealApr10.jpg Having a stroke is about as near as you can get to dying and coming back, says Fr Kevin Neal of St Mary’s, Taradale.
It’s as though half of the brain’s 12 or so hard disks have fallen off the shelf and been trampled underfoot. Gone is a fear of death, ‘Because the stroke has left me somehow feeling quite free. I just say “God has given me 58 wonderful years and then he gave me a stroke and I’ll see what happens now”.’
Life has been richly spent among ‘ordinary’ people for Fr Kevin. The youngest of a large family, he grew up with his father’s passion for working with farm animals and reading the land and his mother’s love of music and of teaching.
He joined the de la Salle Brothers after a couple of years at their school, Francis Douglas Memorial College in New Plymouth, in the hope of a farming career but finished up as a teacher.
He began teaching in the de la Salle primary school in Mangere of which he has ‘tremendously fond memories’.
‘I was teaching during the day, coaching sport after school and studying at night, and working on a building site on the property at weekends. It was a desperately poor place – everything we got we had to work for but we were young and there was a lot of vibrancy.’
Later at Francis Douglas Memorial College he taught English, bookkeeping and religious studies and his wide range of activities included bus driving.
‘I remember taking a group of students to Pukekohe after school, arriving in time to run relays and getting back about three in the morning, the kids taking it in turns to be with the driver to make sure he was alert while the rest of the passengers were asleep.’
During ‘20 odd’ years at Francis Douglas, Fr Kevin realised a change was on the horizon.
‘I have no doubt that God wanted me to be a brother and, at some stage, God gently led me to the priesthood’ – a ‘course correction’, as his de la Salle provincial put it.
At 42 Fr Kevin was ordained and sent to the cathedral parish in Palmerston North. After four years there and another four in Hastings, the possibility of moving to Stratford arose. Many of the parishioners were former students and, his health failing, the people supported him.
‘There were so many things that I couldn’t go to but the people were involved in everything even if I wasn’t so the lay people were tremendously empowered.’
Fr Kevin had been in Stratford about four years when the stroke hit. He had just finished giving a retreat in Whanganui and was relaxing with participants.
‘I never lost consciousness right through but a lot of things changed.’ One of the brain’s hard disks which fell on the floor contained the key to religion, ‘so I found I had little memory at all of religion’.
A Eucharistic minister who took him Communion every few days after the stroke helped him to relearn about God. It took some five months but he felt ‘deep within’ a strong idea of spirituality.
He spent about six months at the brothers’ community in New Plymouth and slowly relearned celebrating Eucharist.
After about three years, his love of music returned but there are other pursuits which he will never again enjoy.
One gift that people have given him is their patience when he speaks or sometimes can’t speak at all.
‘And the other thing is that I interact with a lot of broken but amazing and optimistic people now at the rehabilitation centre – twice a week with other stroke and brain-damaged victims – and they are much worse off and often younger than me. So don’t get mad about God or anything else. It’s a darn good life even though some parts are missing.’
These days he tries to live in the presence of God ‘because [since the stroke] there’s nowhere else to go anyway’. He returned to Stratford nine months after the stroke before a new parish priest arrived. But the parishioners didn’t ‘bat an eyelid because they were running the place anyway’.
In Taradale Fr Kevin celebrates Eucharist when he can. He still gets tired and knows he won’t be able to drive forever but he doesn’t worry about the future anymore.
‘You live an hour or two at a time.
‘I believe the things that happen to me are grace – my faith is a grace.’