‘SO ABUNDANTLY BLESSED’: Fr. Dan Finn reflects on his time at St. Mark's

Rev. Dan Finn, longtime pastor of St. Mark's Parish, gathered with parishioners folliowing his last Mass as pastor on Sun., May 31. Photo by Patrick O'Connor

In multiple ways, Father Dan Finn embodies the parish priest who renders his spirit to the entire community, not merely to his own flock. This month, the County Cork native will embrace the next step of his pastoral and personal journey as he takes his leave of St. Mark’s parish after 22 years as its pastor, and 35 years overall of serving the people of Dorchester.

Much has changed in the city’s largest neighborhood, and in all of Boston, since Dan Finn arrived here more than three decades ago. But what has not changed in that time is his tireless, compassionate, and firm commitment to communities that have grown increasingly diverse since his ministry’s early years when the faces of his parishioners mainly revealed their Irish heritage.

His familiarity with that heritage was a home-grown experience, to which he gave expression in an interview with the Boston Irish Reporter in 2005 where he related that he was the oldest boy in a family of seven (two older sisters, four younger brothers) and was raised in the rural farming community of Kanturk, Co. Cork, before coming to Boston in his late teens with his parents and siblings.

The family lived a “simple, straightforward, church-centered life,” he said. His father, James, was a mechanic and his mother Christina, one of 16 children, was a housewife. To Dan Finn, Kanturk was a “big extended family,” and he took great pleasure in playing sports (Irish football, hurling, and handball) and in being part of a team. It never dawned on him to become a priest until at age 18 he went to live in North Billerica with an aunt, whom he fondly calls his “Statue of Liberty.” On leaving home? “There wasn’t much in Ireland for me in those days. I needed a way out.”

The young immigrant was enrolled as a senior at North Billerica High School, as strange a venue for him as the bar scene in Star Wars. “I didn’t know where to go or what to do.” But a guidance counselor finally helped him find the handle, asking probing questions about what he wanted to do with his life. “Until then, no one had ever asked me,” Finn recalled. “There were no choices before.”

He took the challenge as a word from the Lord and over time realized he had a calling to the priesthood. After graduation, he attended Somerville High School for a year of Latin, a prerequisite before entering the seminary. He then enrolled at Cardinal O’Connell Seminary in Jamaica Plain for two years before attending St. John’s Seminary in Brighton in preparation for his ordination.

His first assignment was to St. Catherine’s in Norwood; six months later he transferred to Sacred Heart in Roslindale where he stayed for seven years. He was then assigned to St. Peter’s in Dorchester for 13 years where he became assistant pastor before becoming pastor in 1993 at St. Mark’s.

Recently, Father Finn spoke with the Reporter about his love for the community while reflecting on his years in Dorchester and across the city. A passionate advocate of all immigrant causes – Irish, Haitian, Dominican, Vietnamese, and other newcomers to the city – he has always considered Boston as “a vibrant place with an ethnic mix that is exciting to me and, in their attention to church activities, good for the parish.”

Q. “As you wrap up your ministry in Dorchester, what thoughts spring immediately to mind?”
A. “Thirty-five years – half my life – has been in Dorchester. All three parishes, and so many wonderful people over the decades here. They have all been such an example to me. I can’t think of a better place to have spent all these years. Although so many parishioners, so many friends here, have passed, they are still my cheerleaders, still keep me on the road.”

Q. “Can you speak to the many ways Dorchester has changed since your arrival?”
A. “Dorchester had indeed changed so very much. The city’s very make-up has changed, and I love it. I love today’s diversity. Where else in the archdiocese could I have experienced so many cultures? Because of my own immigrant experience in coming here from Ireland, I believe I can understand on a personal level all the issues that bring us to the States. War, harsh economic conditions, persecution – all these and more drive people to these shores to make a better life for their families, and like the Irish and every other group that came before, today’s immigrants want that, and they want to work hard for that. I’ve always found that so many immigrants use great faith to battle great hardships. I understand that.

“That’s the greatness of America and the greatness of the church. All you have to do is look at St. Mark’s and the other splendid old churches around here, and you can see how the church has served as a religious, cultural, and social centerpiece of the community, not just in name, but in faith.”

Q. “You have ministered to new immigrant groups over most of your years at St. Mark’s. How has your approach changed for those whose native language is not English?”
A. “In my early days here, people like myself who came from Ireland spoke English, so despite the hardships, we understood the language. To help people who speak little or no English, we started English programs to give them the basics here and to get them on the path to citizenship. Breaking down language barriers is crucial to helping people contribute fully to the community and have a real chance at the American dream.

“Building the community also means providing opportunities for poor children to have safe places to play, grow, and interact with other children of all groups and races. Wainwright Park has been a great success in that way. With sports, ice skating, field trips, and so many other programs open to all the neighborhoods’ kids, I believe we’ve been able connect the message of the Mass into a wonderful community effort.”

Q. What aspects of the church have you seen as being constant throughout your ministry?
A. “For me, the Mass remains the constant, the compass for any parish. My message has always been for people – including me – to take the messages of the gospel and the sermon out with us on the street. I urge people to act the same on the street as in church.”

Q. “How has the problem of declining attendance at Mass and for the church in general impacted your ministry?”
A. “When I was first ordained, people came to church in big numbers. St. Mark’s used to have 8,000 coming to Mass on Sundays. Now it’s 1,000-1,500. It shows that there’s a great need to reconnect with people and engage them both in and out of church. Pope Francis puts this very well and is returning the church to a more pastoral role. The church must be inclusive – just look at how the pope has worked to start healing the problems between the US and Cuba.”

Q. “So what’s next for you and what do you take with yourself personally from your life in Dorchester?
A. “I’m taking the summer off and plan to travel to Nova Scotia as well as a few other spots. I haven’t received a letter of assignment yet. “As I leave Dorchester, I realize how much I love these neighborhoods and the people here. I’m a city guy, and Dorchester has made me not just stronger, but also grateful. I know that whatever’s coming, I can take it on. I still have so many friendships from my early days here, lifelong friendships. Now, I can just ring doorbells in Dorchester as a friend, with no need to be a priest unless needed with my friends. People are like candles, the flame reflecting God’s presence in all of us.

“I remember, too, the departed from my years in Dorchester. I still feel their spirit every day. As you get older, more of our friends and loved ones have gone to the other side; but they’re still with us. Life is about separation and about the way in which we deal with that. I don’t mean to sound morbid, but I truly believe that this is all preparation for the biggest separation from life to the other side. We should not fear that, but live life to the fullest. I have been so abundantly blessed, and so much of that is because of Dorchester and its people.”

Greg O’Brien contributed to this report via his interview in 2005.