Rev. James Larner, a Dorchester man, dies at 78

Correction: Father Larner will be lying in repose at St/ Ann's Church today (August 27th) from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Rev. James M. Larner, a Dorchester original who never left home for long, died at Massachusetts General Hospital on Monday. He was 78 and had not been in the best of health for several years before suffering a heart attack in June.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at Saint Ann Church tomorrow at 11 a.m. Father Larner will be lying in repose at St. Ann's Church from 2 p.m to 8 p.m. on Thrusday, August 27th. A funeral Mass will take place Friday morning at 11 a.m. Burial will take place at New Calvary Cemetery, 800 Harvard Street, Mattapan.

Mary Cobb of Dorchester summoned feelings that were shared by many Dorchester residents who had come to know “Father Jim”:

“We’ve lost a dear, dear friend. He grew up in our neighborhood. He was very proud to be a son of St. Ann’s, and that’s where he’s going to be buried from. He loved Dorchester, he loved Adams Corner. He loved Greenhills, he loved Gerard’s. He was here every Tuesday night. My dear friend Alice McDonald and I met with him every Tuesday night for 25 years. We had a lot of laughs and a lot of good times with him.

“Years ago he used to have dinner with us, and then, when they had a cook at the rectory, he ate there. He would have his fig square here at Gerard’s; he loved them. But once he was diagnosed with diabetes, he just had his decaf coffee.

“He baptized my grandchildren. I bet he baptized half of Neponset! He was the epitome of a parish priest.”

Added Dan Larner, Father Larner’s nephew and the executive director of St. Mark’s Area Main Streets: “He was always thinking of other people and never himself. A great example of that is, whenever I was talking with him, if I mentioned anybody’s name from Dorchester, he would instantly mention everybody in their family – their parents, their brother and sisters, their kids, who married who. You don’t get to know that many things about so many people without really caring about them and taking an interest in them.”

If there was one thing that Father Larner appreciated, he told the Reporter in an interview two years ago, it was stability, and his way of life as a boy, man, and priest, was ready testament to that.

In what is surely a rarity for a parish priest, he hit a pastoral trifecta of substantial local parish assignments -- St. Brendan’s (1963-1977), St. Ann’s (pastor, 1982-1987), and St. Gregory’s (1989-2009). That’s 39 years out of 52 in Neponset and Cedar Grove with stops in Woburn (St. Barbara’s), Plymouth (St. Peter’s), Canton (St. John’s, briefly) and South Boston (Gate of Heaven) along the way.

Although he had been very much slowed down by a nerve disorder in his legs that made getting around on foot an exercise in determination, Father Jim was on the job daily helping keep up the pace at St. Gregory’s.

“I still get out and around and do what I’ve always done on the altar and off,” he told the Reporter in 2007, “but there are things beyond me now; I’m not much help going out at night. Today, for instance, I’ll be going down to 2262 Dorchester Avenue at Lower Mills to say Mass as I do the last Friday of every month.”

When asked to comment on the changes the years have wrought on his parishes along the Neponset, the hefty, soft-spoken priest hesitated but briefly. “I’ve seen a lot of changes in the neighborhood since I was a boy in the mid-1930s running off to play ball at the parks, but there still is a certain stability here, something that stems, I think, from the sorts of families who have made their homes and raised their children in these parish surroundings over all these years.”

James Larner came from one such family. Thomas and Mary (Conway) Larner, both of Galway, met and married over here at the end of World War I and started their family in 1921 with the birth of John, who was followed by Thomas in 1923, Albert, who died in infancy, and, finally, James, on Jan. 3, 1931, 14 months into a Depression that still had a long way to go before its run was up.

“My father, who lived to be 94, had a bright mind, hardy constitution, and he was a good worker who found and kept a job with the city’s Public Works Department,” said Father Larner. “Like everyone else in the neighborhood, we didn’t have much, but somehow we managed to get along.”

For the youngest Larner, getting along meant attending parochial school with his pals at St. Ann’s, where Sister Norena, of the Sisters of St. Joseph, had what he calls “a significant influence on me” as he kept up his studies between ballgames. It was the sisters who steered him to BC High and the Class of ’48 by challenging him to attend extra classes to prepare for the entrance exam. The next move – to the Heights – was a no-brainer; it’s what most BC High grads did at the time.

As he neared his graduation from BC, the young Larner slowly but surely came to realize he had a vocation to the priesthood and so, with his parents applauding in the background, he entered St. John’s Seminary. In February 1957, he was ordained at Holy Name Church in West Roxbury.

“There were 57 of us, including two others from St. Ann’s: Tom Foley and Bob Pollis. In fact, there were 11 young men from St. Ann’s in the seminary at all levels at that time. And if you count other ordinations across the state that year, the total was close to 75.” By way of comparison, there were 42 men at St. John’s Seminary at all levels when Father Larner was speaking two years ago.

Those 57 priests of the Class of 1957 went on to minister in a clerical world that has undergone enormous change, internationally and locally in the last 52 years. Among them was Vatican II, which shook up the Roman Catholic Church in ways (liturgically and in its mind-set) that still vibrate in the pews, and the priest-abuse scandal that was first uncovered in Boston and which continues to roil many of the faithful.

Father Jim didn’t have much to say on either point. “The changes that came with Vatican II were tough on many of the older priests; for those of us just out of the seminary, it was something to adjust to, and deal with. As to the scandal, I’d rather not comment on it. It has been a tough time.” Indeed, and emotionally painful, no doubt.

Back in 1957, when the newly ordained Father Larner arrived in Woburn on his first assignment under the Cardinal Cushing regime, he found no church there; St. Barbara’s was being built. “We held services wherever we could find the space. We performed baptisms in dining rooms and I heard many a confession across a kitchen table.”

The scene speaks to the man and priest from Arbroth Street who died this week. You take on your assignment and do what has to be done. And, said Father Larner, if you’re lucky, “you get to do it in Dorchester.”