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Retired O’Connell teacher credits the Blessed Mother for saving his life in Vietnam

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As he lay in a pool of his own blood, Bob Feeney cried to the Blessed Mother for help. It was April 21, 1968, and the young soldier’s six-man unit had been overrun by a much larger group of North Vietnamese soldiers. Shrapnel from a rocket propelled grenade had struck his skull and body. Feeney believed he would die. But the only other living member of his unit heard his cry. The soldier wrapped bandages around Feeney’s bloodied head, and the two men staggered toward the safety of the unit behind them. 

Feeney believes the Virgin Mary saved his young life that day in Vietnam. His second chance at life has given him time to save the lives of others, to become a father and grandfather, an author, a teacher, a coach, and above all, an apostle of Christ and his mother, Mary. 

Feeney was born in Alexandria Aug. 4, 1946. He attended St. Rita School in Alexandria and graduated from St. John’s College High School in Washington in 1964. From a young age he loved playing sports. “I played football, basketball and baseball. I was a long-distance runner, marathon and all that, and a long-distance ocean swimmer,” he said. “We had a place at Ocean City and I’d go past the breakers and swim down the coast. That was a real delight for me.”

After high school, he played college basketball at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky. One day on his way to practice, he stopped in a bookstore and found a brown scapular attached to a leaflet explaining the devotion. He liked the idea of having a spiritual mother in Mary and decided to wear it. “I had it underneath my practice jersey and all my friends said, ‘Feeney, what in the world is that brown thing you’re wearing?’ ” he said. “I still went to church on Sundays, but I didn’t really have a spiritual life. That was the first time I ever witnessed to my faith.”

Though he thought he wouldn’t be eligible because of his status as a student, Feeney was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1967. “I wanted to work and get some money, so I took a semester off and then I went back to summer school. My draft board said you can’t do that, you have to go straight (through),” he said. “My basketball coach was all upset but I said there’s nothing I can do.” Once Feeney knew he was headed to Vietnam, he visited the bookstore at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. “I said, I got to learn how to pray.” There he bought a book about the rosary and began to recite the prayers every day.

“My mother was a nervous wreck. Back then on the TV, you’d see all these guys coming home in body bags. Fifty-nine thousand Americans died,” he said. “I said, ‘Mom, Mary will watch over me. I’ll just pray the rosary.’ ” Sure enough, he survived his injuries and was discharged after months of recovery in Vietnam, Tokyo and finally Washington state. Once out of the military, he was right back at Our Lady’s shrine. 

Bob Feeney recovers after being hit with shrapnel from a rocket propelled grenade during the Vietnam War. COURTESY

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“I knew I didn’t have a vocation to the priesthood, but I wanted to help people know about Mary like I had learned about her. So I went to the director at the basilica and said, ‘This is my situation, I’d like to promote devotion to Mary.’ He said, ‘You’re at the right place because we could use you here.’ ”  For four years, Feeney helped the director give seminars to priests and tours to young people about Mary and the basilica. 

With the encouragement of a priest friend, Feeney finished his degree in physical education at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., in 1976. He earned a graduate degree at the University of Dayton in Ohio so he could teach college. For many years, he was a physical education teacher and coach at schools in northern California. 

Feeney married his wife, Catherine, in Santa Clara, Calif., in1985. When Catherine was pregnant with their daughter, Mary Ann, they were out on a rosary walk and spotted a burning home. “The mother had left to go get milk and the kids were fooling around with a lighter when the house caught on fire,” said Feeney. 

He told Catherine to call the fire department as he went inside. Feeney found twins in the living room and rushed them out. But once outside, one of the children said her little sister was still in the bathroom. “I ran all the way down the hall — there was so much smoke and flames I didn’t know if I was going to make it,” said Feeney. But he grabbed the girl and escaped the fire. The story made the news and the town of Ukiah held a banquet in his honor. 

Around 1988, Feeney began his work as a prolific self-published author. His first book on Our Lady of Guadalupe, “Mother of the Americas,” was based on a paper he wrote in graduate school. He found success when Ignatius Press put his book in their catalogue. “That lead to one book after another,” he said. 

Feeney returned to Northern Virginia in 1994 so he and his family could be closer to his widowed mother. He wanted to teach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, but they didn’t have a physical education position open. Still, the principal offered him a job teaching theology as long as he took classes at Marymount University in Arlington to supplement his education. 

Feeney’s favorite part was teaching the students the John Paul II method of praying the rosary, based on the pope’s apostolic letter “Rosarium Virginis Mariae.” The technique emphasizes meditation on the Gospel passages, singing the Glory Be and adding a different phrase after the word Jesus in the Hail Mary to better contemplate the mystery. “That was the highlight of my whole class because the kids loved it,” he said. “They actually went home and taught their parents and friends. I’ll never stop praying this method.”

Feeney’s written work brought him to Rome twice. His book, “The Rosary: ‘The Little Summa,’ ” found its way to Pope John Paul II’s secretary, Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz. “He liked it so much that he contacted me and said, ‘Mr. Feeney would you be willing to meet with the pope in his apartment and give him your book?’ ” The author and pontiff met in 2000 and bonded over their incredible recoveries from near-death experiences — the pope from an assassination attempt, Feeney from an attack in Vietnam — and their shared belief in the protection of Our Lady. 

Bob Feeney, standing with his daughter, Mary Ann (right), hands a copy of his book to Pope John Paul II in 2000. COURTESY

FEENEY JPIIAfter writing “The Catholic Ideal: Exercise and Sports,” Feeney was invited to give a seminar at the 2005 Conference on Church and Sport at the Vatican. He spoke on Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and had lunch with Frassati’s niece, who supplied him with pictures of her uncle. Feeney also gave his book to Pope Benedict XVI. The book had a cover photo of Pope John Paul II kicking a ball, and when Pope Benedict caught sight of the photo, “he had a big smile on his face,” said Feeney.

The Third Order Dominican and parishioner of St. Veronica Church in Chantilly retired from teaching in 2009 after feeling unable to talk for the duration of a class period. He realized the cause of the problem when he was diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome — a rare, incurable, autoimmune disease that causes white blood cells to attack healthy tissue, especially of the eyes and mouth. The natural athlete tries to ward off the effects of the disease by walking several hours every day, and as his doctor told him, by taking it one day at a time. He’s working on two new books, including one on an Argentinean Marian apparition. “I have a suspicion that God’s going to give me time to finish these,” he said.

Feeney and his wife have a granddaughter named Miriam. Their two other grandchildren, twin girls Regina and Stella, died at 7 months gestation. “That was the toughest funeral I’ve ever been to in my life. My daughter said, ‘Dad, would you take the babies down the aisle?’ ”said Feeney. “(And after the funeral) I took the casket over to the cemetery at St. John’s in Leesburg. Then my daughter said, ‘Daddy, now put your grandchildren in the ground.’ It was really tough. I go by there a lot and visit.”

This Easter, Feeney traveled to San Nicolas, Argentina, the site of a recently approved apparition of Mary to a middle-aged woman named Gladys de Motto. In honor of Our Lady’s messages, a church was built — the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Rosary of San Nicolas. He took photos and researched about the apparition for a new book titled “The Woman Clothed with the Sun.”

But the trip had another purpose, too. A year after the attempt on his life, Pope John Paull II traveled to Fatima in thanksgiving, and began praying the rosary exactly at the time he had been shot in St. Peter’s Square. After he left the Army, Feeney traveled to Marian shrines around Europe to thank Mary for his life.  This year, Easter fell on the exact day, April 21, he was saved from a violent death. “My whole life would probably be different if I hadn’t gone to Vietnam. I don’t even know if I’d have faith,” he said. “(Now) I’ll be able to thank her for saving my life, 51 years later.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019