Fintan the Unforgettable

On the morning of the winter solstice , the darkest night of the year,Fintan Kilbride slipped peacefully away in the palliative unit of Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital. The quiet man who had brought so much light and hope into the lives of the young here and abroad left behind a legacy of such overwhelming goodness that its bountiful overflow will be felt for decades to come.

Raised in Tipperary with his seven siblings two of whom joined him in the priesthood, Fintan joined the Holy Ghost Fathers where he spent the next twenty-nine years teaching in Trinidad and building schools and hospitals in eastern Nigeria. Expelled in 1970, he worked in New York where he met and married Kenise Murphy in 1973. Moving to Toronto Fintan began his teaching career at Neil McNeil High school in 1975. It was here that many of us came to know and love the quiet Irishman with the sly and gentle humour and the passionate love for the poor which burned like a white incandescent flame beneath the unflappable exterior.

It was during these years that we saw another side of Fintan. simply stated he was one of the greatest athletes any of us had ever encountered. As Fr. Mick Doyle said in his eulogy,”Any sport that required a bat and a small moving object, Fintan mastered.” An outstanding hurler in Ireland, an incredible tennis player and golfer, Fintan was world class at racquet sports, squash and racket ball. His wife Kenise would often the story of two friends who were at the 19th hole of a golf course in Ireland, talking to the bartender.

“No one ever beats par on the 16th hole,” he said, “except the pro here. Well, there was, once, one man who did, a young priest from Nigeria.”

Choosing to concentrate on racquet ball, several times he won the North American Seniors championship defeating men years younger than himself. Finding little competition at his own age level, he would drop down and defeat those in the next age bracket-until the Kilbride rule, still in tact, was invoked. You can only compete in one division. Inevitably Fin would come home with the gold and we would have to pry it out of him that he had indeed won again. “I did OK,” was all he would say.Look in the dictionary under “humble” and you’ll still see his warm grin.

While at Neil McNeil, Fintan started Students Crossing Borders an international cooperative education program which introduce students to the realities of the Third world and their responsibilities as privileged brothers and sisters. It was in this context that Fintan touched the lives of the Kielberger brothers,Mark and Craig who counted him as a direct inspiration in their own work in Free the Children.

Also at Neil,Fintan was active in Teachers for Social Justice(TSJ), an activist group in the then Separate School Board whose very creation (1978) and existence proved how comfortable teachers had become in their middle class lives.TSJ had been formed to remind teacher colleagues that teaching under the banner of the Cross was a vocation and not a job; that it entailed consistent risks for those on the margins here and elsewhere. Fin was not only an enthusiastic member but he embodied for us what the world’s’ bishops had stated in 1971, that “justice was constitutive element of the gospel.” In 1979, Fintan was one of the founders of the (now) Ecumenical Stations of the Cross, Toronto’s ongoing attempt to insist that Good Friday is not sentimental nostalgia but a continuous fact in our city and our world.

In the 80s Fin became an active and enthusiastic member of Catholic reform groups, recognizing that the Church under the John Paul ll pontificate had begun to default on the promises of Vatican ll.The restoration severely disappointed him particularly in its failure to come to grips with the decline of priests all over the world. He was a very forceful spokesman for Corpus, the organization of resigned priests who challenged the mandatory celibacy role and wanted the priesthood open to women.

Retirement was not a word in the Kilbride lexicon. Forced to leave teaching at age 65 in 1992, Fintan took his passion for the Third World into supply teaching , exposing countless students to the hopes and dreams of the poor in Jamaica and Haiti. He was always on the road driving medicines and hospital supplies from Detroit to Miami where they would be shipped to Central America. At 78 and thirteen years officially retired, he was named the top Catholic teacher in Ontario and received the Marion Tyrrrel award for his social justice work.Shortly after receiving the award in 2005,Fin fell ill with a then undiagnosed illness. With his well known iron will he continued to attend his Saturday morning Craic (Irish,good conversation) sessions with like-minded cronies in a coffee house in the the Beach.

Inevitably as the cancer drained him, he was taken to the palliative unit at Princess Margaret Hospital. Sitting by his bedside a week before he died, his tremendously supportive wife Kenise remarked to me what a privilege it had been to spend the last thirty 33 years with this good man. We who knew him as a close and loving friend can only utter our silent amens. The quote from Francis of Assisi on Fintan’s mass card perfectly summed up his rich life.” Go teach all nations-if necessary use words.”

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