Intervention: From fear to empowerment

This story originally appeared in the Denver Catholic Register Sept. 21, 2011. September is National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month. This was the first in a two-part series on intervention. Click here for part 2, “Experts dispel common myths about intervention.”

Jheri Newell’s son John Paul, 30, had turned into someone she didn’t recognize. Her talented, sensitive, articulate, thoughtful son had withdrawn; he wouldn’t look her in the eyes; and he began lying and stealing—to the point that it landed him in jail for 17 days.

Over the course of two years, J.P. had become addicted to drugs. It started with Vicodin prescribed for a toothache, continued with Oxycontin, and ultimately led to an addiction to heroin.

“I realized he was turning into someone I didn’t know,” said Newell, a Catholic who attends various churches in the Denver Archdiocese. “The addiction started to really manipulate his personality, it’s insidious.”

Newell prayed that God would provide the help her family needed.

“I was overwhelmed with emotion because, you know, this is my loved one,” she said, breaking down and acknowledging the situation continues to weigh on her today. “You’re afraid …you’re just afraid …and then you start praying even harder than you usually do.

“It’s a matter of trusting that the right people are going to come into your life to help you with the situation,” she said.

In response to her prayers, she met Stephen Wilkins, a trained intervention provider.

On Dec. 1, 2010, Newell sat down with Wilkins at a restaurant for an hour and a half to discuss the situation and the possibility of conducting a family-structured intervention for J.P.

“We talked about how I felt, where I was in the process, where JP was in the process,” she said, “my expectations, my plans, and how an intervention actually works.”

A family-structured intervention is a process that involves several people, usually four to eight, that prepare as a group to approach a loved one who is involved in a self-destructive behavior, such as alcohol abuse, drug addiction, gambling, an eating disorder or other health problem.

An intervention aims to motivate an individual to accept help for the addiction or behavioral issue, put relationships on the road to healing, and raise an individual’s self-esteem so he or she believes she can succeed at recovering.

“This is a loving process,” said Wilkins, a parishioner of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Denver, who has been doing interventions for eight years. “Everybody that participates in a family-structured intervention has the opportunity to start getting well, everybody. It’s my job to shepherd them through this process with as little anxiety as possible.”

Interventionists such as Wilkins—and Howie Madigan, who has assisted with some 2,400 interventions since 1974 and co-founded the National Center for Intervention—equip families with the tools needed to get treatment for loved ones. Appropriate treatments vary by individual and may include counseling, community-based programs, outpatient treatment or inpatient treatment.

“The truth is families are not equipped to deal with alcoholics and addicts,” said Wilkins, who is a recovering alcoholic of nine years. “They wear themselves out with the best of intentions.”

Wilkins generally provides two training sessions of three to five hours with a family prior to an intervention. Newell was grateful for the educational and therapeutic benefits of the training.

“Educating yourself through an interventionist is absolutely amazing because you’re now out of fear and into empowerment—it’s absolutely priceless,” she said. “Once you have someone guiding you … you know you’re doing the right thing, and you’re being pushed along by God.”

On Feb. 8, Newell gathered four of J.P.’s closest family members and friends at a relative’s home, along with Wilkins, for an intervention. Each participant had prepared a letter that they read aloud to J.P.

“It’s very powerful to hear the voice along with the words,” she said. “And of course it’s emotional because the letters are very heartfelt and honest … it’s an incredible level of honesty. At the end of the letter, you ask: ‘Will you get help?’”

After more than two hours, Newell—along with Wilkins and J.P.’s younger brother—started the drive to a treatment facility; one that she had carefully researched and chosen in advance. After a few diversions along the way, including J.P. jumping out of the car at one point, she delivered her son safely to treatment.

“I know he has the faith, strength and stamina to get through this,” she said.

It is estimated when an intervention is done professionally, 85-90 percent of people, nationally, get some kind of treatment.

Madigan, a recovering alcoholic of 44 years, understands the power of addiction.

“The truth for an addict or an alcoholic is the single most important relationship in their life is the relationship they have with the thing they’re addicted to,” said the 76-year-old parishioner of Immaculate Conception in Lafayette. “They’ll sacrifice all other relationships, including their relationship with God most of the time, to stay with it.”

Newell believes the experience deepened her relationship with God.

“I didn’t realize how far I had gone from my relationship with God,” she said. “This experience has changed me immensely. I really had to trust God in a different manner…I really needed God more.”

This trust helped her deal with fear.

“At first I was afraid, but in order to really help an addict, it’s not about you—it’s about the steps that are needed to help that person,” she said. “Trust that God will give you the tools. The healing starts to happen; and it’s amazing what unfolds.”



National Catholic Council on Alcoholism and Related Drug Problems or 800-626-6910 Ext. 200


National Center for Intervention

Intervention services or group presentations (parish, parent or community groups)

Stephen Wilkins

720-366-4736 or


Interventionist training



National Catholic Council on Alcoholism and Related Drug Problems or 800-626-6910, Ext. 1200


Denver Area Central Committee of Alcoholics Anonymous or 303-322-4440 (24-hour hotline)


Recovery retreats based on 12-step spirituality

Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat House

4801 N. Highway 67, Sedalia or 303-688-4198 Ext. 100

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”