Last night around 930pm, Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice called to inform me that Bishop John J. Nevins had just gone home to the Father. Bishop Nevins was the first bishop of Venice when the diocese was established in October of 1984. He and I lived on the same property in Miami for five years as I succeeded him as Rector of St. John Vianney College Seminary in 1979, but he remained on property as Auxiliary Bishop of Miami till his appointment to Venice in 1984.
An only child of first generation Irish parents, the bishop grew up in New Rochelle, New York where his education was largely in the hands of the Irish Christian brothers. Graduating from Iona College (also run by the Irish Christian Brothers) he entered the seminary for the Fathers of Mercy, a religious order of men, and studied at the Catholic University of America. Just before his ordination to the diaconate, the Fathers of Mercy were disbanded, leaving young John Nevins with no place to go.
A wonderful Sulpician priest recommended that the “homeless” seminarian contact Bishop Coleman F. Carroll who was in his second year as bishop of the new diocese of Miami and upon doing that he was accepted as a seminarian for Miami and ordained to the priesthood on D-Day the sixth of June 1959. He held many positions in Miami including pastor of several parishes, director of Catholic Charities, and Rector of St. John Vianney College Seminary from 1974 till October 10, 1979. Venice was made a diocese in June of 1984 (along with Palm Beach) and he was installed as the first bishop in October of the same year. He served as active bishop for twenty three years until succeeded in office by Bishop Dewane.
I remember very well the consultation which preceded the decision to erect Venice as a diocese. Many people pointed out that it would be a challenging diocese to administer for a number of reasons, the major being that the population of the expected counties to be included consisted of many seniors and finding enough priests from within the diocese would be unlikely. True to predictions, the diocesan population grew very quickly and the need for priests increased even more exponentially than predicted.
It was also a large diocese. Since Bishop W. Thomas Larkin was a classmate in graduate school of St. John Paul II (he taught the pope his English), he was in the driver’s seat in shaping the size of the new diocese, ninety per cent of which was formerly the Diocese of St. Petersburg. Bishop Nevins, faced with these foreseen challenges and many more unforeseen led the diocese often by sheer force of his wining, loveable, Irish personality. He was always a good priest and a person of the people. He was also at the top his game when a priest was in trouble, caring for them and trying to get them the help they needed. In Miami and in Venice, he will be fondly remembered until we all die off as a “priests’ bishop”. Lay people and religious also responded to him well.
He could occasionally be unpredictable as when presiding at the funeral of Dr. Ben Shepherd, the seminary’s doctor, in the seminary chapel during the homily he walked down placed his hand on the casket and told the grieving widow in these precise words, “you know, the shell is still here but the nut is gone!” She shrieked in grief while the rest of us struggled to control our laughter. On the occasion of his 25th anniversary of his ordination, also in the seminary chapel, he began his homily with this line: “my mother and father were peasants” and I thought his mother, Ann, was going to come right out of the pew and “crown” her son.
John Nevins lived his life for his God and for his mother. He began to change and age and start his own walk to heaven’s gate when his mother died. I accompanied he and the casket on a bitterly cold December 27th to Kilkar, County Donegal, where she is buried. When the two of us climbed in the car to leave for Shannon and the next day’s flight home, it was akin to his spirit dropping like low blood pressure. He was a hoarder, never throwing anything away, but were you to visit his home, you had to be struck by the number of pictures of he and Pope John Paul II and he and his mother. It was like he was in love with both.
His period of declining health was long and drawn out and very sad. Bishop Dewane and the Chancellor, Dr. Volodymyr Smeryk took great care of the bishop. He had no other family than the Church and the Church cared deeply and lovingly for him. Many of us, bishops of Florida and priests, have missed him the last seven years during his declining health and next Wednesday at 11 a.m. when we gather at Epiphany Cathedral for his funeral Mass, everyone will have their own memories and recollections. I have shared only a slither of what I could say about this good man and I thank God for coming for him last night and ending his confinement.
Norman Rockwell once painted a picture of a very young John Nevins for the cover of THE SATURDAY EVENING POST magazine. Young Johnny was a red-head with freckles looking expectantly for something coming which was not there. Now he has seen the Lord and the same broad smile as in the Rockwell painting must be on his face.