At that point, the Rev. Joe O’Neil and his wife, Elaine, already had five of their six children.
“I was working full time, going to school full time and caring for my family,” said O’Neill, now 58.
Still, O’Neil wasn’t done with his education. He went on to complete studies at the Moody Theological Seminary in Plymouth and graduated from there in 1996.
He was called to Mount Hope Bible Church in Grass Lake in September 1989.
Last October, after 27 years at Mount Hope, O’Neill said that he and his wife “took a step of faith” and left Grass Lake to be closer to their children, most of whom now live in the Grand Rapids area.
“My wife and I decided we want to move out here,” he said.
Elaine, a registered nurse, took a job with Spectrum Health Medical Group as a specialist in diabetes education. Joe started filling area pulpits as needed, all the while looking for a new church home.
“We felt that the Lord still has a few more years for me to serve,” Joe said.
One of the locations he started to serve was Nortonville Gospel Chapel, located at 14528 Leonard Road in Spring Lake Township. The Bible church’s former pastor, Dennis Snyder, retired in March 2016 after serving nine years in the pulpit. He remains a member of the church.
Head Elder Ken Brondyke said the church created a search committee, eventually receiving 60 applications.
“We hosted candidates from as far away as California and Texas,” Brondyke said. “We ultimately felt that God had called us to select the Rev. Joe O’Neill as senior pastor.”
O’Neill had already spent eight Sundays speaking at the church when the congregation voted to accept him as their new pastor. He took over permanently the following week, on March 12.
O’Neill said he and his wife are already feeling at home.
“It’s been a wonderful connection,” he said recently. “The people here love the word of God. And if they are hungry, I will feed them.”
O’Neill admitted that despite being very religious, he didn’t really understand that salvation was a gift from God.
“I knew it in my head, but I didn’t know it in my heart,” he said.
When his brother shared an article about the cross by Luis Palau, O’Neill read it several times.
“It was time to make a decision,” he said. “That’s when the Lord opened my eyes.”
That was in November 1981. Ten months later, Elaine also converted.
The former Catholic said that he was not rejecting Catholicism.
“I was just accepting Christ,” he said. “Something as important as salvation, you want it to be simple.”
The pastor said he gravitated to the Bible churches because they emphasized the teaching of the scriptures.
A native of Jackson, O’Neill was raised Roman Catholic, graduated from Jackson High School and then from Canisius College in the Buffalo, New York, area in 1980. He majored in religious studies and was seriously considering going into priesthood.
“But I met my wife, Elaine, and that changed everything," he smiled.
The two married in 1980 and eventually had six children: John, Chaeli, Andrew, Meaghan, David and Stephen.
He was the Continuing Christian Development coordinator at St. John Vianney in the Buffalo area, before converting at age 23. That’s when he enrolled in the Grand Rapids School of Bible and Music, which eventually merged with Grand Rapids Baptist to become Cornerstone University.
O’Neill said he hopes to grow the Nortonville Gospel Chapel’s congregation, which currently has a membership of about 100.
“I see my role as teaching the word of the Lord and living as an example to the flock,” he said.
The 124-year-old church added a new educational building and parking lot about four years ago. Sunday services are held at 10:45 a.m. and 6 p.m. Sunday school is offered at 9:30 a.m. A mid-week Oasis Prayer Meeting is held every Wednesday at 7 p.m.
O’Neill said that during the fall and winter, there is also a Good News Club for children ages preschool through sixth grade.
For more information, see the Nortonville Gospel Chapel Facebook page, or go online to http://nortonvillechapel.info/.