An Irishman became an English monk and moved to Missouri. Even in the oral tradition of the Gaelic people, this sounds a wee bit like a tale that went awry.
But Father Finbarr Dowling would say he’s obediently followed the path where God led him and 76 years from where he began, he’s still drafting the legend of an Irish lad from Dublin who wanted to share his Catholic faith working for social justice, education and ecumenism.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1936 to Maureen and Patrick “Paddy” Dowling, Patrick Joseph (Finbarr’s birth name) was the second of four children and arrived to the day a year after his brother, Jim.
Pat or Paddy, as he was known, attended St. Mary’s College, Rathmines, from fifth through 10th grade before moving on to the Jesuit boarding school Clongowes Wood College for his last two years before attending university.
Dowling was a good athlete and played cricket and rugby on his school teams as well as with select clubs. His 1957-1958 rugby team at St. Mary’s won the coveted Leinster Senior Cup, the premier rugby union competition, for the club’s first time.
He also excelled at academics, earning the prestigious Palles Medal for Mathematics at Clongowes Wood – 32 years after his father had earned the same honor at the school.
Dowling earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering at the National University in Dublin, and spent three years working for a company in Manchester, England, making safety inspections on a new nuclear power plant.
Growing up in Ireland, Dowling said the Catholic church was focused on ordinary people and priests working together to help the poor. And almost every family had a relative on missions in other countries, giving children a global perspective.
Throughout his schooling and early career, Dowling was active with a Catholic apostolic organization called the Legion of Mary. Referred to as a spiritual army, legion members provide spiritual and social services in their communities.
With the Dublin Legion, Dowling worked with teens coming out of youth prisons. They organized boys clubs at night so the youth had someplace to go and provided fellowship and encouragement.
In Manchester, his Legion of Mary work focused on West Indian immigrants, helping them get housing and government benefits as citizens from a former English colony.
Dowling found his Legion of Mary work rewarding, so when he inquired about longer life service to the church, a Manchester priest put him in touch with a community of Benedictine monks in Yorkshire, England.
They invited him to visit their monastery — or Benedictine community — which included a boarding school for 850 boys.
The community sat in a valley – a place Dowling calls majestic and magnificent. On one side was the monastery and housing for older students. On the far side was the 17th century Gilling Castle, which held the lower school, and in between were 31 football fields where the boys played rugby.
“They asked me what I was good at,” he said. “I had never thought of teaching at that stage.”
But a teacher is what he became. Dowling spent the rest of the term at the school teaching math and coaching rugby and cricket.
With an invitation to join the community – and train to become a Benedictine monk – he headed home to Dublin for the summer to think it over.
St. Benedict was a young man who became a monk in the sixth century. He studied the monastic life and wrote the Rule of Benedict, the basic guide for Christians committed to the monastic movement.
Being a Benedictine monk involves making a vow with three basic tenets: lifelong commitment to a community, or monastery; conversion to a monastic way of life which includes dedication to prayer, celibacy, sharing material goods in community and a life of simplicity; and obedience.
Dowling returned to the Yorkshire monastery in England in the fall to begin his first year as a “novice,” studying languages including Latin, history, Scripture and philosophy.
As a novice, Dowling’s new home became the abbey, or monastery, and he took a new monk name, Finbarr. He wouldn’t return to his native Dublin for seven years.
In 1961 he was “clothed in a monk habit” and began a two-year study as a “junior monk” before making his profession in September 1962. After this preparation, he said most men enrolled at Oxford University for undergraduate degrees. But he already had the degree.
Dowling said the monks realized he had an aptitude for language, so he was sent to Switzerland for four years to earn a Licentiate of Sacred Theology (S.T.L.). Similar to a master’s in theology, the STL is approved by Rome as training to teach theology.
Dowling continued his work with the Legion of Mary in Switzerland, visiting the city prison.
During his time in Switzerland, the Second Vatican Council of Bishops was held. He said 2,500 bishops from around the world participated for three months each fall over four years. Dowling had the chance to talk with the bishops and their companion theologians on their way to and from Rome, something he said gave him an even greater global perspective on his faith.
Back in England, he was ordained a Catholic priest in 1968 and sent to a parish in Cardiff, Wales, for a year.
“They said, ‘You will spend the rest of your life teaching in this boarding school. You had better find out how ordinary people live,’ ” he said.
One of five priests, Dowling celebrated Masses, taught part time at a local Catholic high school and spent his Saturday evenings off playing rugby with a local club. He also took courses in rugby coaching that he said were beneficial to him throughout his coaching career.
When he returned to Yorkshire, he settled into a life of teaching and coaching at the monastery. On weekends, he bicycled to a nearby village of Gilling, about three miles away, to say Mass.
In the fall of 1970, the Abbot, head of the monastery, called Dowling into his office to ask if he’d be willing to move to the United States to help run a boys school.
“As a good monk I said, ‘If you want me to, I will,” he said. “Obedience. Basically I was told that’s what they wanted me to do. That’s the key virtue of monks, obedience.”
Fifteen years before, in 1955, the Yorkshire monastery had sent monks to America to help start a boys school in St. Louis called Priory. At the time, quite a few young Americans were joining the monastery and the intention was for the English monks to establish the school and return home, leaving it in the Americans’ hands.
But the Americans didn’t adapt well to monastery life, and all but two quit, keeping the English Benedictines in St. Louis. Now, the Yorkshire Abbey had decided it was time to make the St. Louis Priory an independent abbey and the English monks were being given a choice to commit to the St. Louis Benedictine community and stay in America or return to England.
“Because they joined the monastery in England, they couldn’t be told they had to stay, they could only be transferred if they agreed,” Dowling said.
If they agreed, the monks were committing to living out the rest of their lives in America. Two monks returned to England and eight stayed. Dowling agreed to join them.
“When the boss says go to St. Louis, all you ask is ‘How do I get there. He told me, ‘All I know is that you go to Chicago and go south.’ ”
At term break in 1970, the 34-year-old monk left the Yorkshire Abbey and made a trip home to Ireland before heading to America. It was his first Christmas at home in 10 years.
He left Dublin for Chicago on Dec. 27, eventually making his way south to St. Louis. Driving to his new home in St. Louis he saw a highway sign for Brentwood – ironic, he said, because his home place in Ireland is called “Brentwood.”
The St. Louis Priory monks welcomed him to America that night with a bottle of Guinness, a popular Irish beer.
“I didn’t know any of them,” he said, “but they were very English and had this funny Irishman coming in.”
When school resumed in January, he was named co-form master of the ninth grade, assigned five classes of math, religion and French, and appointed freshman soccer coach and varsity track coach.
“ ‘What is track?,’ I said. We call it athletics back in Europe. Games master was our term for athletic director.”
During his teaching tenure, Dowling introduced rugby and golf to Priory. He also created a television club – MBC – Monks Broadcasting Corporation. It was pioneer broadcasting, he said, and just in time because in 1973 Priory won the state football championship in Kansas City and MBC was there to cover it.
During the summer breaks, Dowling explored America. He and a colleague discovered auto relocation agencies and delivered cars on what he calls a “monastery hop” across the country.
He had four weeks and $200 – so his trip ended whenever one ran out, he said. He stayed at monasteries and convents along the way. In a pinch, he carried a tent in the trunk. Once, he said he stayed at a convent and slept where Mother Teresa had just slept the previous night.
Just one term into his arrival in St. Louis, Dowling was named assistant headmaster, a position he held for 10 years before being named headmaster of St. Louis Priory School in 1983.
“When I took over it marked a shift from mostly monks to mostly lay teachers. The school was growing and no young monks were joining the monastery,” he said.
Dowling said he feels one of his most important contributions to Priory was his effort to create a cohesive faculty with more lay people in important positions.
“I wanted to give the correct perception that I was as interested in them growing as I was in the students growing,” he said.
His faculty must have appreciated his efforts, as one later wrote in a retirement note to Dowling:
“The freedom to be and do within the classroom has always been your hallmark as a headmaster and I believe that your encouragement has strongly shaped the excellence I strive for.”
Dowling’s commitment to social justice that inspired his work with the Legion of Mary and led him to become a Benedictine monk also became an important part of his leadership at Priory.
“I tried to show the justice in the Gospels,” he said. “From those whom much is given, much is expected.”
He established a senior course that included a weekly visit to Catholic groups that work for the powerless in society in St. Louis, much like the Legion of Mary.
During the summer he led an academy at Priory called ASSIST for boys from north St. Louis public schools. The goal was to bus the boys to school each day for five weeks of academics, arts and athletics, instilling in them the value of regular school attendance in their high school years.
About 50 boys participated each year and Dowling said on his last check, all the boys who completed the ASSIST program had graduated from high school. The successful program continues today with an even greater outreach to St. Louis city schools.
In 1992, at the age of 60, Dowling retired has headmaster of St. Louis Priory School. In a scrapbook the school made for his retirement, parents shared their gratitude for all the ways the Irish educator had impacted their children, including the “quiet good we’ve seen you do when you thought no one was watching.”
Another parent wrote: “… they (our sons) always referred to you as the alpha and omega of the school – that’s their quote from years ago. When asked what they meant – they said you held the school, students and teachers together.”
One mother’s note cited her son as saying:
“You know, Mom, that’s what I will miss the most —Father Finbarr could make a casual remark at assembly that would make me think all day.”
Four years after retiring as headmaster of St. Louis Priory School, two things happened in southern Warren County that determined Dowling’s next chapter.
The St. Louis Benedictine community inherited 400 acres of rural property at Holstein and Dowling began investigating the idea of developing the property into a retreat center.
And the priest at St. Ignatius of Loyola in nearby Concord Hill retired.
The St. Louis Archbishop asked Dowling if he would take the parish for a year in September of 1996.
The Benedictine community ended up selling the property, but their monk stayed. Sixteen years later he’s still continuing his “priestly ministry” to the parish of St. Ignatius.
In addition to his service to the church, Dowling’s educational expertise has helped the rural parish grow its Catholic school. He shares his love of language with students and encourages them to develop strong oratory skills by coaching the school’s speech team. And his zeal for rugby is nearly assuaged by the soccer league he initiated at the school.
The monk continues to pass on a legacy of service beyond self to the children under his tutelage by leading them on pilgrimages to World Youth Days in Canada, Germany and Australia, and into St. Louis to share in missions like Father Bob Gettinger’s Christmas food baskets for the needy and the St. Patrick Center’s assistance to the homeless.
Since he arrived in Warren County, Dowling has been working to create camaraderie among area churches and faiths – his local ecumenism.
Ecumenism is a movement promoting unity among Christian churches or faiths and worldwide unity among religions through greater cooperation and understanding.
In his first year at St. Ignatius, Dowling started a local week of prayer to coincide with National Week of Prayer in January. Services rotate among nine different churches. He also joined a ministers group that now meets once each week for fellowship.
Two years ago he was invited to join a group of Benedictine monks from North Africa and Europe in an ongoing international monk/Shi’a Muslim dialogue. In September he traveled to a meeting of the group in Rome. The goal, he said, is greater understanding of the other’s faith. He’s planning to attend the next gathering in Iran this fall.
Dowling said he believes it takes three steps to reach local and international unity:
1. Pray together often.
2. When you’ve prayed together long enough that you can trust each other, do activities together.
3. When you’ve done activities together long enough to really trust and know each other, only then do you discuss theology and church questions.
That’s the secret to dialogue rather than debate, he said.
“Only when you start trusting and believing in each other can you say ‘let’s find out how both of us can be right,’ ” he said. “That is a very difficult point to get to.”
This year Father Finbarr Dowling celebrates his 50th anniversary as a Benedictine monk. His commitment to faith, justice and unity show no signs of tempering with time.
“You are as young as you feel. If you begin to feel the warmth of your soul, there will be a youthfulness in you that no one will be able to take away from you.”
— John O’Donohue, from “Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom.”