A life lived in service

Louis Quinn: Born in England, raised in Toronto, Catholic priest, development entrepreneur, legend in his adopted country, the Dominican Republic

By John Graham
January/February 2008

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The day after Fr. Louis Quinn died in a Florida hospital several friends and a cousin met with his cardiac surgeon. Long acquainted with Lou, his wonky heart, his Parkinson's and other afflictions, the distinguished surgeon grumbled that this had not been a "compliant" patient and then repeated what he had said to his medical team: "This is probably as close as any of us will get to a Mother Teresa."

John Graham with his friend of 47 years, Lou Quinn, at the parish house in Ocoa. John is wearing a T-shirt commemorating the 2002 declaration by the Dominican Senate naming Lou 'Father Protector' of the newly created state of San José de Ocoa and Godfather to the community run development organization, ADESJO. John Graham with his friend of 47 years, Lou Quinn, at the parish house in Ocoa. John is wearing a T-shirt commemorating the 2002 declaration by the Dominican Senate naming Lou "Father Protector" of the newly created state of San José de Ocoa and Godfather to the community run development organization, ADESJO.

This view was widely shared in the Dominican Republic whose people Fr. Quinn had served and loved for more than half a century. President Leonel Fernandez decreed a day of national mourning and all flags on government buildings across the country were lowered to half-mast. Along with several thousand grieving Dominicans, President Fernandez attended the funeral held in Fr. Quinn's parish, the mountain town of San José de Ocoa.

Educated in Toronto, Fr. Lou Quinn was ordained in 1952 as a priest of the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society and left almost immediately for the Dominican Republic. Appointed to Ocoa in 1965, he found a widely scattered community, comprised mostly of campesinos (farmers) leading lives of harsh subsistence. A first challenge was to build roads as access to the market town was a tangle of narrow mountain trails for horse and donkey.

A gifted organizer and ingenious fundraiser, he cajoled money and equipment from the Dominican government, mining companies, charities and international organizations including CIDA, the Canadian government's International Development Agency. With the local development organization that he nurtured and supported, 600 kilometres of dirt roads were cut, 69 schools were built, wells dug, clinics set up, over 2,000 houses with cement floors and foundations erected, millions of trees planted, a hydro dam installed, hygienically designed latrines distributed, irrigation pipes laid, agricultural counsel provided and cottage industries for cigar boxes, furniture and jewelry established. Work on many of these projects continues to be joined by hundreds of Canadian students and adults.

The crews of two visiting Canadian warships have also participated. Toiling in the Ocoa sun, the officers and sailors dug foundations, poured cement and laid irrigation pipes. The building materials, all donated by Canadian charities at Lou's bidding, had arrived as deck cargo on the Canadian ships. After their work Lou provided fried chicken and beer, and a choir of children from the town and villages, trained by him, sang "Oh Canada" to the astonished sailors in English and in French.

Lives transformed

Gradually the lives of thousands of people were profoundly transformed – and inevitably some feathers were ruffled. Concern in high places that his priorities were misplaced led to an order for his removal from the parish. Following massive demonstrations by the people of Ocoa the order was rescinded. Devout, but possessed of a mischievous sense of humour, Lou once complained that what he had most in common with Pope John Paul was Parkinson's. In the end his spiritual integrity and extraordinary achievements won the hearts of everyone. Two years ago he received a high decoration from the same Pope.

Two bishops and Fr. Jack Lynch, Superior General of Scarboro Missions, spoke with affectionate passion at his funeral. In his eulogy and in the presence of President Fernandez, Monsignor Freddy Breton, Bishop of the Diocese of Bani, spoke of the many things that Lou had done and of the many that he had unsuccessfully urged the government to do. One of these was Lou's long campaign for a solid, all-weather road running down from the mountains and linking Ocoa to the country's East-West highway. Eleven days after the funeral, tropical storm Noel devastated the province of San José de Ocoa and the surrounding villages as floodwaters and mudslides sheered away large sections of this road.

Nicknamed Guayacan after the country's strongest hardwood, Lou was for many years as tough physically as he was in determination. It was often Lou who drove the bulldozer on the precipitous sections of mountain roads. Inspired by the teaching to love his neighbour and his enemy, he struggled, often with difficulty, to follow that canon. A fearless advocate for his parishioners, he once challenged a burly policeman to arm-wrestling combat. If Quinn won, the policeman would liberate an innocent teenager from the local jail crowded with brutal villains. Quinn won.

"We need to have the courage – no matter who is offering the money – to stand our ground and remain autonomous with our mission. People have to understand that if we have a track record, it's for a reason. And that needs to be respected and analyzed. It's disastrous in an area like Ocoa, with the river basins so depleted, where the policies have been inconsistent – it's dangerous when the poor are so vulnerable. Just spending money to fulfill a funding agency's short-term timeline can undo overnight a whole lifetime of effort to bring about change. We have been fighting for this all along. Anything that endangers the process of self-sufficiency is dangerous and we shouldn't be exposed to the whims of buying politics. Meaningful development takes time and understanding of an area's people, culture, and potential."

Fr. Lou Quinn, executive director of ADESJO (Association for the development of San Jos. de Ocoa) speaking at a meeting of this community run organization. This quote appeared in the 2003 publication, "Innovative Case Studies on Participatory Instruments", produced by the Latin American and Civil Society Team of the World Bank.

His mettle was tested almost immediately after arrival in the Dominican Republic, ruled at the time by Generalissimo Trujillo, a megalomaniacal dictator who decreed that it was alright to worship God as long as Trujillo was at least equally venerated. This arrangement did not fit Lou's temperament and his l.se majest. was soon reported by the spies assigned to his church. He survived, but his equally outspoken friend and former assistant curate, Scarboro missionary Fr. Arthur MacKinnon, was murdered in the tumultuous period that followed the dictator's assassination.

I met Lou a few months before Trujillo's assassination in May 1961. It was my job as the junior officer in the tiny Canadian embassy to offer some sort of protection to members of Canadian religious orders who were being harassed and threatened by Trujillo's secret police. There was nothing that I could really do except visit and show the flag, but the meeting was the beginning of a 47-year-old friendship.

Belligerent with rogues, blasphemous when thwarted, Quinn could charm the whiskers off a cat. An alumnus of St. Michael's choir in Toronto, he sang with a mellow baritone, sometimes accompanying himself in his own compositions on the guitar.

Fifteen years ago, it was put to Fr. Quinn that he might be a candidate for the Order of Canada. "Why would I want that?" he asked.

"Because it will help you raise money in Canada."

"Ahh," said Lou who subsequently became a Member of the Order.

Former Canadian ambassador John Graham is chair of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL).

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