Father Joseph Oneal McGowan, SJ (also known as Oneal J. McGowan), former campus minister and director of minority relations at Seattle University, died December 23, 2020, at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center in Los Gatos, California, from cancer and complications of Covid-19. He was 80 years of age.
Fr. McGowan was born September 9, 1940, in a Houston taxi, on the way to the only hospital that would accept African Americans. He attended St. Nicholas School in the parish for African Americans staffed by the Josephite Fathers, where his grandmother was the school cook. He lived with her when she became the housekeeper for the priests of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Rosenberg, Texas, which served the Mexican American community. One of the parish priests befriended him and prepared him for first Communion. Fr. McGowan decided that he, too, wanted to be a priest.
Because of Jim Crow laws, there was no Catholic high school he could attend. He, his mother, Lourina Burdett, and grandmother, Mary Lou Connors, moved to Seattle at the suggestion of a relative who had visited there. Fr. McGowan attended Seattle Preparatory School, where he was a debater. Inspired by his teachers, especially Fr. Michael McHugh, SJ, he decided he wanted to be a Jesuit priest and entered the novitiate at Sheridan, Oregon, in 1961, one of the very few African Americans to enter the Jesuit order.
Studies in philosophy and theology were made at Gonzaga University, the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and Seattle University. Fr. McGowan was ordained a priest in Seattle on November 9, 1974.
Fr. McGowan’s ministry took place in Seattle and Tacoma. From 1974 to 1999, he served in many capacities at Seattle University: campus minister, director of minority relations and drug and alcohol abuse counselor in various agencies. He had a stint as a Latin teacher at O’Dea High School (2000-2002), which was followed by pastoral work at St. Joseph’s Church (2002-2004).
In 2005, he moved to the Bellarmine Jesuit Community in Tacoma, where he had taught as a scholastic (1965-1968). In addition to pastoral work, he was active in the Marriage Encounter program and the Catholic Charismatic movement. From 2007 to 2019, he was chaplain at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Tacoma. Health issues brought him to Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, where he engaged in a ministry of prayer.
Fr. McGowan was a quiet, prayerful man. He was a musician from his youth, a high school and college orator, onetime columnist for the Seattle Times and a lover of poetry. An outpouring of love and affection at the time of his retirement and later correspondence attested to the way he touched the lives of many — present but not the center of attention.
Funeral Masses at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center are currently not open to the public because of Covid-19 restrictions. To view Fr. McGowan’s livestreamed funeral Mass, click here.