| Baptism of fire greets Vallombrosa director
Dominican Father Patrick O'Neil is the director of the Archdiocese of San Francisco's Vallombrosa Retreat Center in Menlo Park.
Father O'Neil was a student at Notre Dame Law School when he was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving a two-year hitch and then completing his law degree at Arizona State University "where I first met the Dominicans," he said.
He was drawn to the order by its "active/contemplative vision of religious life which St. Dominic, the most modern man of his time, invented."
That said, he "was in the courtroom daily as attorney and judge for 13 years" before "beginning a long period of discernment" about religious life.
Though he admits his "goal was to put this crazy idea out of my mind" the months-long focus yielded Father O'Neil's "being called to be a Dominican." He was ordained to the priesthood in 1995 by retired Yakima Bishop Carlos Sevilla, a Jesuit and former auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and "a friend for many years."
Father O'Neil celebrates Mass at Vallombrosa, of course, as well as at Corpus Christi Monastery across the street from Vallombrosa, where he joins three fellow friars daily for morning and evening prayer and dinner.
Vallombrosa hosts several thousand individuals every year for retreats, conferences, and workshops.
Father O'Neil's first months at the Menlo Park center involved a literal baptism of fire.
"All the destruction occurred in an instant," Father O'Neil said in an email describing the night of Oct. 9 when lightning shattered a tree at the facility. "The truly good news is that absolutely no one was hurt," he said. That was no mean event, considering the center was packed with 60 priests of the Archdiocese of San Francisco on retreat.
The lightning took out a "giant sequoia tree," Father O'Neil said. "Evidently the bolt caused the moisture inside to heat up instantly to such a high temperature that the tree literally exploded."
Portions of the tree launched into the sky, coming down with such velocity that they spiked deeply into the Vallombrosa lawns. Some landed in swimming pools and yards of neighbors. The roof of the Vallombrosa library was crushed. Computers were fried.
Neighbors including the Dominican Sisters of Corpus Christi just across the street felt such shaking they thought their building had taken the hit. Everybody stayed on for the retreat and Vallombrosa staff kept nourishment coming by cooking by emergency lighting and whipping up a barbecue lunch.
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