By MC Havey, Archivist
Corbett, Neil Adrian Born 23 April 1911 of James Patrick Corbett and Christina Chisholm in Havre Boucher, Nova Scotia. Professed 2 August 1936, ordained 22 June 1941, died 27 June 1984.
Growing up in the small community of Havre Boucher in northern Nova Scotia, Neil was educated by the Sisters of Charity and served Mass at the local church. At the age of 11, he lived in the rectory and performed household duties while attending high school. For the first year of St. Francis Xavier University, Neil lived with a family in the university town of Antigonish with a similar accommodation arrangement. To earn university tuition, he worked at a series of jobs, including as a teacher in Havendale (1929-1930), a postal clerk in Havre Boucher (1930-1931) and a clerk in his uncle’s Gainsboro Hotel in Halifax (1931-1932), where he also studied accounting in a night course.
Through separate missions preached by Frs. Lucian Howard and Thomas Mangan, Neil learned of the Redemptorists and received the necessary funds to attend St. Mary’s Brockville, from a hotel resident who accompanied Neil to daily Mass. During the two years (1933-1935) at St. Mary’s, he edited the College Review and the College Weekly. An actor in the college drama productions, he also played baseball and tennis as well as being on the class hockey team. In his graduating year of 1935, his prize-winning speech of “Premier Bennett’s Reform of Capitalism” won him the oratorical contest.
Entering Novitiate under Fr. James Fuller in Saint John, Neil professed vows on August 2, 1936. Studying at St. Alphonsus seminary, Woodstock, he spent three summers at the Beaupre seminary in Alymer, Quebec, to learn French. With a gift of languages, Neil was chosen to continue seminary studies in Tuchow, Poland (1938-1939) with newly-ordained Fr. Victor Crean. A month after making final vows with Polish classmates on August 2, 1939, the German army invaded Poland. On the eve of the war, he left with assistance from the British Consul and fled across Europe without baggage or money, arriving in England. Almost all of the Polish confreres in Tuchow died under the German occupation of Poland.
Completing studies at the Woodstock seminary, Fr. Corbett was ordained on June 22, 1941 by Bishop Martin Johnson of Nelson, BC. Fluent now in French and Polish, Fr. Corbett was appointed to St. Mary’s parish, Saskatoon (1942-1945). He gave retreats to high school students in that city and served as a chaplain to the navy recruits on the HMCS Unicorn.
Back in Eastern Canada, he attended Second Novitiate under Fr. Anthony McBriarty in Woodstock, and was loaned to St. Columbkille cathedral in Pembroke for the summer months of 1945. Named as Novice Master, he and the novices lived in St. Mary’s College, Brockville (1945-1947) until the Novitiate (1947-1950) moved to Woodstock, where the seminarians’ activities, games and songs contravened the quiet and seclusion of the Novitiate. Promoting a move of the Novitiate, Fr. Corbett was successful and was assigned as the founding Novice Master (1950-1953) of the newly-purchased Novitiate at L’Abord á Plouffe, Quebec.
Highly-regarded as a spiritual director for religious women, he helped write the constitutions of Our Lady’s Missionaries and guided them in the early days of their founding in Alexandria, Ontario.
Returning as rector and pastor to St. Mary’s parish (1953-1959), Saskatoon, Fr. Corbett made an impact. Fr. Douglas Pankhurst described Fr. Corbett in his prime as a powerful personality in the pulpit. Fr. Pankhurst recalled “an eloquent appeal he (Fr. Corbett) made one Sunday for clothing for Hungarian refugees who had recently come to the city after the Russian invasion. Dozens of people walked to the hall after the Mass, took off their overcoats and parkas, and filled five long racks with warm winter clothing, which he speedily distributed the next day.” Fr. Pankhurst noted that zeal for people’s welfare – spiritual, mental and physical was characteristic of Fr. Corbett’s apostolate.
Fr. Corbett was named consultor (1959-1961) to Vice Provincial Bernard Johnson. At Liguori House, Edmonton, he was part of the planners of the Edmonton Province and was appointed as consultor for the new Province (1961-1964).
Leaving administration, he served as rector/pastor at St. Joseph’s parish, Grande Prairie (1964-1972) and rector/pastor of St. Alphonsus parish, Edmonton (1972-1975). He served on the parish staffs at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Vancouver (1975-1976, 1982-1984) and at St. Mary’s Saskatoon (1977-1982).
In 1976, his parish appointments were interrupted with a study leave in Dublin, Ireland, where he met a Polish confrere, who related the Redemptorist troubles of an inability to provide pastoral care in Poland. With his Superiors’ encouragement, Fr. Corbett visited Poland and subsequently was instrumental in several Polish confreres being assigned temporarily or permanently to the Edmonton Province.
In the last years of his life, Fr. Corbett made annual visits to family and friends in Havre Boucher, where he celebrated the 40th anniversary of his ordination. At the anniversary Mass, Fr. Bernard A. MacDonald, a family friend, said the world needed people like Fr. Corbett, who “place their lives behind their words and who live what they promise.” He added that Fr. Corbett has brought distinction and honour flowing from gentleness of spirit, humbleness of being, sensitivity of love, the best of Liguorian qualities.”
Following a visit with family to a nursing home in Havre Boucher, Fr. Corbett stepped outside onto the sidewalk and died almost instantly of a heart attack. He was 73.
The Funeral Mass was held in the home parish of St. Paul’s in Havre Boucher with Fr. MacDonald as the homilist, who noted that Fr. Corbett was “the possessor of a pleasant disposition and pleasing personality; a cultured and refined gentleman marked by civility, all utilized most prodigally in the service of others.” His body was buried in the cemetery in Havre Boucher.