Father Dan Finn, a faith and community leader, especially among the Irish, in Dorchester since 1980, left his longtime post as pastor of St. Mark’s parish two years ago, but he didn’t go very far.
After a bit of rest and travel, the native of Kanturk, Co. Cork, moved into the rectory at nearby St. Brendan’s parish and took up a new role as chaplain and coordinator of the Irish Pastoral Centre, which he had co-founded some 30 years before at a time when hearty waves of young Irish men and women were leaving their home island and settling in the city, often without proper immigration documents.
Many of them soon came to know Dan Finn as a priest who was energetically engaged with their ranks even as he was busily attending to parish affairs at St. Peter’s in Dorchester throughout the ‘80s.
He brought to his pastoral duties a resume that reflected an immigrant’s pluck and a drive to succeed as a churchman. A teen-aged carpenter on his arrival from Cork at an aunt’s home in Billerica, MA, in 1962, the young Finn worked and studied his way to archdiocesan seminary studies in Brighton and his ordination in 1972, the year before he was sworn in as a US citizen.
After seven years as a curate in Norwood and Roslindale, he settled in as assistant pastor at St. Peter’s, the beginning of close to four decades of priestly service in Dorchester where he quickly established himself as a relentless champion of the immigrant Irish in Boston.
Today, his responsibilities consist of helping out archdiocesan parishes with day-to-day needs while continuing his deep involvement in immigration issues on a large scale in Dorchester, across the city, and beyond. But increasingly, he said in an interview at his Rita Road office this week, his duties take him into cellblocks where anxious Irish-born prisoners – sometimes undocumented – seek out, and count on, his counsel.
“In the last year I’ve visited seven or eight people,” said Fr. Finn. “They really appreciate my visit, and I have had to work to understand each of the different prison’s rules, and what is acceptable.” He added that he has learned the hard way that some prisons won’t let you mail cash to inmates.
He sees his role as acting as both a support system – quelling the incarcerated individual’s anxieties – and as a messenger – sending updates to and from the individuals and their families in Ireland. Having strongly supported the rights of the undocumented Irish through almost four decades of priestly service in Dorchester, he takes this new facet to be a natural extension of previous work.
In the aftermath of President Donald J. Trump’s controversial executive orders, immigrant anxiety is spiking to levels not seen since the 1980s, Fr. Finn said. Many of the Irish he works with are no longer seeking out the police and healthcare resources because they are afraid of being arrested. “It’s a real fear for people. The centre tries to be a bridge between their situation and other resources that we know will be safe for them to go to.”
Fr. Dan Finn’s long career as a parish priest has earned him the trust of thousands— and not just from the Irish community. His 22-year-long ministry at multicultural St. Mark’s parish on Dorchester Avenue made him a virtual family member to families with origins in places like Vietnam, Haiti, and Rwanda.
“I’m more or less a name,” he conceded. “I know a lot of people in this community, and have a wide network of relationships. My job is a process of reconnecting with people I’ve met over my lifetime.” At the Pastoral Centre, he added, “We basically assist people from the cradle to the grave.”
Memorial Masses at St. Brendan’s church, at which the death of an immigrant’s relative from his or her native country is commemorated, are highlights of Fr. Finn’s work. “You should see the huge crowd that comes on that occasion,” he said.
The centre aims to create a “parish without boundaries,” as he puts it, meaning that it has to be there for immigrants “in the shadows.”
Every month, the center brings immigrant attorneys to Dorchester and to its Quincy quarters to educate people on the appropriate engagement procedures with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. It is important, Fr. Finn said, for people to know that even though they may not be legal citizens, they still have rights.
“We’re trying to get the word out that we’re here for anybody and everybody—that the door is always open. We’ll respond in any way we can, given our resources,” he said.
Even though the Pastoral Centre is now entering its 30th year of operation, Fr. Finn believes that more familiarity with the immediate area is needed.
With a mission statement that purports to provide services without geographical boundaries, he said, the biggest difference in his work now, after St. Mark’s, is simply that he is not focused on a square mile of parish space. Everything else goes on, more or less, as before.
“I say Masses in Milton, Quincy, Lowell, and different parts of the city. What before would have been an exception – travelling around all over the state –now is more of a rule.”
The organization hopes to move into a more prominent office sometime this year, but there is no intention to ever leave Dorchester. “We feel this is area is where we belong,” Fr. Finn said. “It is the crossroads for new Irish immigrants. I’ve always said, ‘You don’t need to join the Navy to see the world. You just need to come to Dorchester.’”