A family man, a mentor, a stalwart

Published: Friday | June 5, 2009


The Right Reverend Neville Sylvester Neil, bishop of the Moravian Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, passed away on Friday, May 22. He will be remembered not only for his 62 years of service to the ministry of the Moravian Church, but also his service as a bishop for Jamaica and the Cayman Islands and the Unity of the Moravian Church worldwide.

A family man, a mentor, a stalwart, a paragon of virtue, a visionary, a man of benevolence, faith, discipline and integrity are mere modest encomiums that can be said of Bishop Neil who, throughout his journey, had touched the lives of countless persons. Moreover, he was very charismatic.

"Dedication and commitment to Christ were his hallmarks and loyalty to the Moravian Church. His evangelistic fervour was one of his strong points. Family, and not just his immediate but his extended family, was dear to his heart," Bishop Robert Foster of the Moravian Church in Jamaica commented.

Great storyteller

"He was known by everyone for his wit and humour. He was one of the greatest storytellers ever. When he tells you a story, you can't miss it no matter how trivial it might be. He tells it in such a way with drama and with humour," Foster added.

Bishop Neil was born at Dunder Hill, St Elizabeth, on March 17, 1917. He first attended the Bull Savannah Elementary School and later the Ballard's Valley Elementary School, from which he left for Tutorial College in Kingston, where he graduated with a Senior Cambridge Certificate. His first job was a short teaching assignment at Mount Felix in St Thomas. He then went into training for ministry.

In an edited interview with Lucinda Peart of the Moravian Church in Jamaica, Bishop Neil summed up why he went into the Christian ministry.

"I couldn't escape. Not primarily because it was the strong desire of my parents, but from an early conviction; I was inclined from about age 17. Every one of the several attempts to do something else in life was futile. I tried a spot of teaching and was accepted for Mico but a very slight matter prevented my entering. My father was very friendly with Lawyer Ward of Mandeville, and twice spoke to him re my being articled to him, but Ward died. These were clear signs that the Lord had other plans."

Young Bishop Neil thus applied and was accepted as a ministerial student at the Union Theological College (St Colmes) in 1943 and graduated in 1946.

He was ordained at Nazareth Moravian Church, Manchester, in January, 1947, and remained there until June of the same year. He was then sent on secondment to the Springfield circuit, where he remained until November 30, 1947, at which time he was recalled to the Nazareth circuit, where he remained until February, 1959. It was while he was at Nazareth that he blossomed as a preacher of great spiritual depth and as an evangelist.

Spiritual awakening

There, he came into contact with The Rev George Sach of Bethany Moravian Church and the Rev W.I. Mumford of the St George's Anglican Church, Mile Gully. This trio created a great spiritual awakening in Manchester.

From Nazareth, Brother Neil went to Redeemer Moravian Church in Kingston, where he ministered until December 31, 1978. Through his leadership, this congregation bore fruit both spiritually and numerically. His next charge was Bethlehem where, in addition to being pastor of that Circuit of Churches, he was college chaplain and lecturer.

At a special Synod held at Lititz, Manchester, on October 15, 1982, he was elected to the office of Bishop and on January 16, 1983, he was consecrated at Bethlehem, St Elizabeth, as Bishop of the Unity. He answered many calls both in Jamaica and the Eastern West Indies Province to assist with evangelistic crusades and other special services. He also served many years on the Provincial Elders' Conference (PEC), the executive arm of the Moravian Church, in various capacities, and served well as a representative of the Jamaican Province, both at home and abroad.

According to the Rev Dr Paul Gardner, president of the PEC, "Bishop Neil was the evangelist par excellence. He was very witty and had creative ways of interpreting the biblical text."

Bishop Neil got married to Sister Barbara (nee Serrant) on June 15, 1949. Sister Barbara also served the Moravian Church well as a supplementary deaconess. She was also a former teacher at Bishop Gibson High School in Manchester. The marriage produced five children: Orville, Denise and Dawn (twins), Heather and Reichel. Bishop Neil took pride in his family as a unit, as well as the extended family. The Neils family home was known for its great hospitality and entertainment. His hobbies were gardening and fishing.

To commemorate his, as well as Rev Vincent Peart's more than 40 years of service in the ministry and to the Moravian Church, a service and banquet were held and a magazine published in January, 1988. While serving the New Beulah congregation, Bishop Neil retired from ministry on January 1, 1993, but continued serving the church on a year-to-year basis, and continued as a bishop of the church until death.

During his retirement, he also engaged in pastoral care and counselling and continued to serve as a bishop until his passing. He was instrumental in organising the Boys Brigade from which emerged men of stature and faith. Bishop Neil had the vision of and started the Community of Concerned Citizens (CCC), which saw to the need of the homeless and mentally challenged. CCC was another project that was dear to his heart, and out of it emerged the Ebenezer Home.

Bishop Neil's service of thanksgiving will be held on Saturday at 11 a.m. at the New Beulah Moravian Church in Mandeville, Manchester. Interment follows in the Bethabara Cemetery.