Obituary: Roddy O'Neil Cleary, 1932-2021 | Obituaries | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Obituary: Roddy O’Neil Cleary, 1932-2021 

Clergy member earned the Ed Everts Peace and Social Justice Award for a lifetime of volunteerism and activism

click to enlarge Courtesy Photo - RODDY CLEARY
  • Roddy Cleary
  • Courtesy Photo

Roddy O’Neil Cleary died on June 27, 2021, surrounded by family and friends. She was born Mary Francis O’Neil on November 5, 1932, in Miami Beach, Fla., to Pearl O’Neil and Thomas Francis O’Neil. Following her father's death in 1943, her family moved to New York, where she attended schools in Rye and New Rochelle.

In 1950, she entered Marymount College in Tarrytown, N.Y., majoring in history. After graduating in 1954, she entered the convent of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. It was at this point that she took the name Sister Roderick in honor of her brother, Roderick O’Neil, and her patron saint, Alfonsus Rodriguez. This became the source of the nickname "Roddy." After taking her final vows as a nun in 1962, she taught at Marymount and earned a master’s degree in theology from Fordham University. After studying the documents of Vatican II, she began to question her vocation as a nun, which led to a sabbatical from the order in 1967.

After returning to the convent, Roddy met her future husband, Bill, then a Jesuit priest who asked her for guidance with his thoughts about leaving religious life. Bill had read scholarship suggesting there was "a possibility that Jesus was not calling people to celibacy" (as she later recounted). Roddy initially disagreed, but their discussion eventually led to dancing. She and Bill left their respective religious orders and were married in December 1969.

Roddy and Bill lived in Elmhurst, Queens, where their son Tom was born in 1970, and Fort Lee, N.J., where their son Neil was born in 1972. After living in Hyattsville, Md., Roddy and Bill moved to Vermont in 1976, where they settled in Shelburne and opened Hopkins Bookshop in Burlington. At Hopkins, Bill and Roddy didn't just sell books; they built community. They opened their home in Shelburne to friends, international students and people in transitional phases. The mid-1980s brought the arrival of Ra and Ry Say (now Ry Nguon) from Cambodia, whom the Clearys welcomed as family, as they did everyone who stayed at their house.

In 1982, Roddy earned a doctorate in ministry from Saint Mary’s Seminary and University and became the interfaith campus minister at the University of Vermont. In 1995, she received the Kroepsch-Maurice Excellence in Teaching Award for her course “Women’s Spirituality: A Challenge to Institutional Religion." In 1997, she retired from UVM and became the affiliate minister at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, a post that she held until 2008. During that time, she was influential as a clergy member in the passage of Vermont’s civil union law in 2000.

In 2008, she was honored by Vermont's Peace & Justice Center with the Ed Everts Peace and Social Justice Award for "her lifetime of volunteerism and activism." Among her passions following Bill's death in 2012 were working as a hospice volunteer and mentoring women in local prisons. In 2015, Mercy Connections honored her with the Catherine McAuley award for "her lifelong service and fostering the dignity of every person."

Roddy wrote the following about herself, in which she begins by quoting priest and author Henri Nouwen: “Roddy believed that ‘Death is the event that gives ultimate meaning to life.’

She subscribed to Gandhi’s claim that religion and politics are inextricable. Her belief, inspired by Buddhist feminist scholar Rita Gross, was that community is the indispensable matrix of enlightenment. Thus religion, politics, community and end-of-life choices were among her greatest interests. Exploring these areas enriched her life.

"Roddy often said that she had the best of two worlds in her lifetime. By that, she meant how much she valued her time in religious life. It was a time of grace and joy, a time of deepening, a liberating time! The opportunity to study theology that religious life provided liberated her to enter into another vocation, marriage and parenting.

"Her beloved partner, Bill; sons Tom and Neil; daughter Ry; son-in-law Tim; daughters-in-law Amber and Dayva; and grandchildren Buck, Nancy and Sam gave this wife and mother more joy than any woman could have deserved.”

In addition to Bill (also known as William Cleary in his work as a composer and author), Roddy was predeceased by brothers Thomas, Roderick and Michael O'Neil; and sisters Vivian O'Neil Bransfield, Dorothy Callaghan and Jane O'Melia. In addition to the family mentioned above, she is survived and warmly remembered by countless former students and members of the religious communities she belonged to and led. Roddy's family thanks the staff of UVM Home Health and Hospice and the members of her hospice care team: her longtime physician Dr. Halle Sobel, Dr. Zail Berry, Toni Messuri, Deborah Deladurantaye, Melinda Lee, RN, and her beloved niece and namesake, Mary Francis O'Neil, LPN. In recent years, Roddy was comforted by her companionship with Bob Lavalley, her friend and her joy. This amazing team made it possible for her to have a transition to the next life that was in accordance with her wishes, and we will be forever grateful.

A celebration of Roddy's life will be held in person at the First Unitarian Universalist Society Meetinghouse on Saturday, September 25, at 2 p.m., and it will also be livestreamed at uusociety.org.

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