Roman holiday took momentous turn for St. Gregory High girls, Class of ’71

Ed Forry
Mar. 19, 2013

The trip of a lifetime— This group of St. Gregory High School pals visited Italy last week and were in Vatican City when the new Pontiff, Francis, was introduced in St. Peter’s Square. Michele Phelan photo

March 13 – I am in Rome with 18 friends. 13 of us went to Saint Gregory’s High together. We have just witnessed one of the most exciting days of our lives!! We were there for it all and proud to be among those who received the first Papal blessing.
- Donna Finneran’s Facebook page

It was the winter of 2012, and a group of women with deep Dorchester and Mattapan roots began to make plans for a special observance for 2013, the year they all would turn 60. 

They were each other’s longtime friends, all once-young women from three Catholic parishes – St. Matthew’s, St. Brendan’s and St Gregory’s – who developed special bonds as students at St. Gregory’s High School.

They decided on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation trip to Italy, and they would travel in a private tour, with stops first in Florence, an escorted bus tour across the Italian countryside, and a three-day stay in Rome, with plans to see the Colosseum, other Roman landmarks, and a mid-week visit to the Vatican.
It was to be a 12-day, all girl vacation- just 18 women, best friends all, leaving their families, their spouses, their grandchildren, and their cares behind to go on a late-winter sojourn. And who knows, they thought, maybe they’d have a chance to see Pope Benedict.

By the time their March 6 departure date arrived, they began to think maybe they had picked a bad time for their vacation, because just weeks before they were to leave, the Pope announced he would resign.
“At first we were very disappointed, because we had planned this trip for so long, and we were good St. Gregory’s Catholic School girls,” Donna Finneran said. “We said, ‘Oh, we plan a trip and now there is no pope.’ But then we started joking about it, saying maybe we’ll be there when the pope is elected. But never in our wildest dreams did we think it would happen.”

But happen it did: Last week, as the papal consistory continued its deliberations, this group of graduates of the now-closed St. Gregory’s High School in Lower Mills were there in St. Peter’s Square on the final day of their stay in Rome witnessing in person the historic moment when the new pope was revealed to the world.

In a conversation from her Mattapan home this week, Donna Finneran talked about her memorable experience in Rome:

“On Tuesday, we saw the Sistine Chapel, we toured the basilica, and that was the first day of voting. We saw the door where they [the cardinals] had gone in, and they were locked in, and I said ‘Look, we saw this and not everyone gets to do that.’ There was a sense of excitement, and when we walked around, and people found out where we were from, a lot of people were saying, ‘O’Malley will be the next Pope.’ ”

It had been a wet vacation and it rained every day, including the three days in Rome.  Knowing that the cardinals were meeting, and that further votes were likely during that final day for the group in Rome, “Six or eight of us said we have to be there,” said Finneran.

“We got there at 3 o’clock and they said it (the smoke) was going to come out at four. It was pouring! Pictures don’t do it justice. It was pouring rain, and cold, and people stood there with umbrellas. More people came and came, and you just saw the tops of umbrellas. We had a little bit of shelter, but even with the shelter we were soaking wet; I mean we were soaked!”

There were five who waited together with Finneran in the rain:  Joanne Rizzotto  (“A girl I met in kindergarten”), Marie Duffy Mansfield and Jean Crimmins (“Girls who went to high school with us”), and Joanie Shea and Eileen Shea. Across the square were Nancy McGillivray Shaffer and AnnMarie Lydon Doherty (“They were on the other side. We knew they were there ‘cause we could do it by text”).

They kept their eyes on the chimney, looking for signs that another ballot had taken place. “Now we were sure it was going to come out black, because why would they wait this late. But then we were watching the windows, and we kept seeing certain lights go on and off. One of us said “something’s going on.’ ”

And the rain kept coming. Then, in early evening, the first wisps of smoke emerged from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel.

“And now the smoke comes out, and it’s white, and turns greyer, and we’re saying, aw, it’s going to turn black. All of a sudden there was a roar from the crowd, and you could hear it get louder, and the crowd went nuts! We had been standing in the rain for four or five hours, and we started jumping – I have just had a knee replacement – and the crowd was chanting in Italian Viva il Papa, and we were chanting right along.

“We skipped dinner. The six of us just held on to each other and there was no problem moving up. We ended up probably within ten rows of the blessing.  Then the rain stopped, and people started putting their umbrellas down so people could see better.”

“It was an unbelievable moment, and we still thought there was a chance it could be O’Malley. Then when they said something like ‘Francesco,’ and we didn’t know if they were saying he’s a Franciscan. You were so caught up in the moment to be there, and you look around at the people and say, ‘With this faith we can certainly fix the problems with the church.’ ”

The women were joined by tens of thousands of others cheering as Pope Francis I offered his first papal blessing. Two others from their group, Peggy Tobin Weeks and Eileen Murphy Tagrin, were also there for the blessing, Finneran said.

“Two of us, Nancy McGillivary and myself, lost our mothers in January. We looked at each other – oh, this is going to make me cry – and we said, ‘Oh my God, what would they have thought!’ To think that we could be here – we are lifelong friends, our fathers used to hang around with each other – and we were so caught up in the moment. It was certainly a Dorchester connection. I can’t tell you how thrilled we were.”

Did anything in her life compare to this experience?

“Nothing… Nothing… And I have certainly witnessed some unbelievable things. Just the crowd, and the different languages, and the faith. You were very proud of your Catholic faith. For the next few days, we couldn’t believe what had happened. We asked ourselves, ‘Did that really happen to us?’ We left Rome the very next morning.

“I said to someone this morning, we will see each other for the rest of our lives, and every time we do we will think of it. It’s a long way from St. Gregory’s, I will tell you that. What a way to ring in our 60th year! The class of 1971, St. Gregory’s High, turning 60.

“We celebrated in style!”