Rockville's St. Raphael Catholic Church Mourns Priest Who Died on Holy Thursday

Rev. Finch had a heart attack Thursday after saying Mass.
Rev. Finch had a heart attack Thursday after saying Mass. (Courtesy Of St. Raphael Catholic Church - Courtesy Of St. Raphael Catholic Church)
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By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dying on Holy Thursday -- the day marking the creation of the priesthood -- on the floor of his parish's sanctuary, under the eyes of a statue of the patron saint of happy deaths, the Rev. G. William Finch left his Rockville congregation with powerful Easter symbolism.

Even as St. Raphael Catholic Church, one of the region's few Roman Catholic megachurches, mourned its pastor, members said yesterday that the imagery was striking. Not only did Finch die just after he finished saying Mass, surrounded by parishioners praying the rosary and priests anointing him, next to the statue of Saint Joseph, but it happened just before Easter, a time when Christians focus intensely on mortality.

That left Finch's community grief-stricken and inspired by the memory of a jolly 55-year-old who loved red wine, Italian food and dancing fervently.

"As tragic as it was, it was kind of perfect," John Reutemann, a seminarian who grew up at St. Raphael's, said yesterday afternoon in the sanctuary, which was quiet except for the organist practicing for last night's Easter Vigil and for today's services. "He celebrated the priesthood, had a great bottle of wine [the night before, for his birthday], celebrated Mass, Saint Joseph looking down at him. That's the way to go!"

Finch, a St. Mary's County native, charged into St. Raphael's parish seven years ago with a burst of energy. He took a popular nursery school with almost 200 students and started adding elementary grades. There are now 100 students from kindergarten through third grade, and the school is set to break ground on a new building this year.

He remodeled the church, commissioning Italian artists to create a marble altar, designing a garden, lightening the color of the wooden pews and dragging out of storage statues of Mary and Joseph that would ultimately play a role in his passing. He expanded the youth program for St. Raphael's, an 11,000-member church with seven Masses every Sunday and a compound of buildings that almost fills a suburban block.

When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Finch raised $100,000 from the congregation and brought to Montgomery County 20 people from New Orleans who needed help getting on their feet.

"You know how they say Diana was 'the people's princess'? Well, he was the parishioners' pastor -- zestful, full of life, the epitome of the Lord's servant," said Matt Jeanneret, a parishioner who worked with Finch's youth program and said yesterday he was "in disbelief."

Teri Dwyer, the school's principal, said Finch "was a visionary in his own way. He was going to go for it."

Clergy said Finch had celebrated his birthday Wednesday with schoolchildren singing to him, and at night he shared wine and a hot fudge sundae with fellow priests.

Thursday was the first of three intense days in an intense week: Holy Thursday, which marks the creation of the Eucharist and the sacrament of the priesthood; Good Friday, which commemorates the crucifixion; and yesterday's Easter Vigil, which is when newcomers to Catholicism are baptized.

Finch had just finished leading Mass, and most parishioners were gone when he felt chest pains, the onset of a heart attack. He asked a priest to anoint him, something done for the sick or those near death. He was taken to a hospital but could not be revived.

"It was kind of a beautiful death," Dwyer said, choking back tears. "Sometimes in a priest's life, you're alone. Maybe he could have gone back to his room, but he was right there."

Finch, born a Baptist, converted to Catholicism in his 20s after meeting nuns while doing construction work on a Carmelite monastery. He was ordained a priest in 1989 and had worked at St. Joseph's in Beltsville, St. Mary's in Rockville and St. Ambrose in Cheverly before going to St. Raphael's in 2002. He is survived by five siblings and his mother.

A vigil for him will be held tomorrow from 3 to 9 p.m. at St. Raphael's, including a Mass at 7:30 p.m. The funeral Mass will be celebrated at the church Tuesday by Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl.

Yesterday, clergy and parishioners were racing around trying to organize the most complex liturgical symphony of the year without the conductor.

"For him to die on Holy Thursday, his death makes more intense all the basic questions, the mysteries we are trying to explore this time of year: What is our faith? What is our life?" said the Rev. Terry Ehrman, who anointed Finch as he was dying. "It makes it all more alive."

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