Jesuit Father Neil F. Decker died on May 16, 2015, only a few weeks before his 87th birthday.
Fr. Decker was born in Jamaica Plain, in Boston, on June 23, 1928, the oldest of four children of Bernard and Catherine (Derby) Decker. His father was a salesman, and his mother managed the household. He attended the local parish school, where he was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph (whose congregation members included an aunt and, later, Fr. Decker’s young sister Kay). He commuted to Boston College High School, which was then located in the South End of the city, and had an after-school job in a downtown office. He was impressed by a demanding German teacher, Fr. Leo Pollard, S.J., who tutored Fr. Decker when he was hospitalized as a student and to whom Fr. Decker first mentioned his interest in joining the Society.
Upon graduating from Boston College High School in 1945, he entered the novitiate at Shadowbrook. He fell in love with the Berkshires and took to his Jesuit studies with enthusiasm in the Shadowbrook juniorate and at Weston College, where he studied philosophy. He volunteered to go to Iraq and spent regency there, from 1952 to 1955, teaching religion and English in his first year, studying Arabic fulltime in his second year, and then returning to the classroom for a third year.
In 1955, he arrived at Weston for theology studies, determined to go back to Baghdad after finishing his studies. He was ordained in 1958 at Weston. After tertianship at Pomfret, Connecticut, he returned to Iraq in 1960. Signs of political trouble were already ominous, and school sessions were sometimes interrupted for days or weeks at a time. However, Fr. Decker loved running a language lab and teaching English to students and Iraqi lay teachers.
In 1968, he was sent to Brown University to do a master’s degree in linguistics and was there when all of the U.S. Jesuits in Baghdad were expelled from the country by the government. Conferring with the provincial about what he would do next, he recalled his happy experiences as a hospital chaplain during tertianship. For most of the next twenty years, this would be his main work, first amidst the chaos of the huge Boston City Hospital, then at Catholic hospitals in Pittsfield, Holyoke, Fall River, and in Portland, Maine.
He said that his whole experience as a hospital chaplain was a “total plus.” In later years, he turned his pastoral skills to the care of fellow Jesuits, as minister in the Portland community and assistant to the rector of the Weston Jesuit Community in Cambridge. While at Weston Jesuit, he returned to hospital work for five years at nearby Youville Hospital. His last fulltime assignment was as assistant to the minister/treasurer of the Boston College community, work he found very fulfilling and where his gentle manner and attentive care were much appreciated. A series of strokes led to his being assigned to Campion Center in 2007.