Priest of the poor
Thousands attend the funeral of Fr. Lou Quinn, affirming the kind of love, service and priesthood that touched them most profoundly
By Fr. Jack Lynch, S.F.M.
Recalling a visit to Ocoa, I will never forget Fr. Lou Quinn's words to me that day. Looking me straight in the eye and with total sincerity he said, "I love my priesthood. I love what I do. It is an honour to serve these people."
I've never forgotten that conversation and it came to mind the day that Fr. Lou passed away. The last thing that he did on the day of his death was an integral part of his priesthood. That morning Fr. Willy, an Irishman and pastor of the neighbouring parish to the hospital where Fr. Lou passed away, arrived at the Intensive Care Unit. Fr. Willy gave Lou communion, anointed him and then put his head on Lou's chest and asked for his blessing. Lou's lips barely moved as he pronounced the words and he mustered all the strength he had until his hand reached Fr. Willy's forehead to bless him. Fr. Lou died that evening.
I was honoured and privileged to be with Lou when he went home to God and to accompany his body back to San José de Ocoa. He had spent most of his adult life there and when he updated his will in September 2007, he clearly stated that he wanted to be buried in San José, "for that is where I belong."
Nearly 25,000 people lined the route of accompany the body of Fr. Lou Quinn into the town of San José de Ocoa for burial. The simple pine coffin was placed on the back of a flatbed truck laden with flowers.
For his commitment and work with the poor, Lou had been presented with honorary degrees from universities in Canada and the Dominican Republic. He was honoured with the Order of Canada; the Duarte Sanchez Medal for outstanding contribution to the Dominican Republic; papal recognition and the presentation of a papal medal by the Papal Nuncio. He was made a citizen of the Dominican Republic and a few years ago all 32 Dominican government senators traveled to Ocoa to confer on him the title of Protector of the new province of San José de Ocoa. In all of it he was grateful, gracious and humble.
He had received all of these public honours, but I know in my heart and firmly believe that the reception and honour given to him by the people of the town of Ocoa and surrounding countryside the day that his remains arrived in the town would have touched him the most. This honour came primarily from the poor and simple people that Lou loved and to whom he dedicated his life.
Carpenters at a factory that Lou had started in Ocoa were asked to make the coffin. It was to be a simple pine box like that of the poor of the area. A few kilometres outside of town a flatbed truck laden with flowers waited along with several hundred people. The coffin was removed from the hearse and placed on the back of the truck for the procession into town.
This event was one of the most moving in which I have ever participated. I was directly behind the truck and for the next three hours some 20 to 25,000 people lined the streets. Many like Zacchaeus had climbed the trees to get a better view. Many sat on rooftops with candles in their hands. Others held photos and homemade posters expressing their affection. Every business in town had been closed for five days in mourning. I saw and experienced the love and affection the people had for Fr. Lou in the tears of men, women and children.
All of us at Scarboro Missions know from our own experiences that in the process of evangelization we are evangelized. That afternoon, the Spirit of God was working in the people of Ocoa and they were affirming and evangelizing us about the kind of love, service and priesthood that touched them profoundly and that they most appreciated.
The wake lasted for a day and a half and thousands of people streamed by the simple pine box to pay their respects. They ranged from men, women and children from the surrounding hillsides to senators and justices of the Supreme Court. All came to Ocoa to pay their respects to a man who loved them and who they in turn loved.
During the procession and wake I listened intently and was moved by the multiple comments about the simplicity of the plain pine box. It spoke loudly and clearly to everyone about a simple lifestyle and Lou's solidarity with the poor. He would have enjoyed the comments.
. He talked about this man from Canada who came and identified himself with the poor and humble of the Dominican Republic and now was being buried in a coffin of "pino criollo," the simplest kind of wood, untreated and without even a coat of varnish. "What an incredible witness of solidarity with the poor," Bishop Freddy said.
Also attending the funeral were Dominican President Leonel Fernández Reyna and his immediate predecessor Hipólito Mejía. The president had declared the day a national day of mourning and all flags in the country were flown at half mast in honour of the "padre de los pobres," the priest of the poor. That is part of the legacy that Fr. Lou leaves for us.
In his homily, Bishop Bretón suggested that the best way for the government to honour Fr. Lou was to complete the highway into Ocoa as they had promised. The president arrived late and took his seat as soon as the bishop finished his homily. However, the bishop later told me with a glint in his eye that he had distributed copies of his homily to all the media representatives before Mass. His words and challenge to the government were printed in every major Dominican newspaper the next day.
What I always appreciated and found most challenging in Lou was his single-mindedness like that of Monsignor John Mary Fraser, founder of Scarboro Missions. Everything Lou did and thought about had to do with serving the people. He underwent a second open-heart surgery with the hope that he would live long enough to see the completion of a huge hydroelectric project for Ocoa. And a few months ago he phoned me as excited as a kid to let me know that financing for the first phase of the project had just been approved by the European Common Market.
One of the stories I was told at the wake had to do with a visit Lou made to Disney World in Orlando. Friends had invited him on many occasions to accompany them on a holiday and he finally accepted. At Epcot Center, he entered the Land Pavilion and was amazed by the experiments and the ways that they were growing tomatoes and other vegetables. He saw great potential for the people in Ocoa. He got in line again and again, going on the ride 10 times that day in order to make sure that he heard everything and that his notes were complete in order to share this information with the agronomists in Ocoa.
During the wake I had a chance to meet with some of Fr. Lou's protégées. They had all been members of his parish choir in their youth. I wonder if they knew that Fr. Lou was a graduate of St. Michael's Choir School in Toronto. Now very successful, they told me that a group of them had invited Lou to one of the finer restaurants in the capital. When they were seated at their table, Lou gave each of them a ziplock bag with a few small cucumbers that had been grown by farmers in Ocoa. He asked if they knew the restaurant manager. The manager was called to the table and introduced to Lou who was already well known across the country. Lou also gave him a small bag of cucumbers and asked to have them cut up and served. When the waiter brought the plate back with the cucumbers, the manager tried them at Lou's insistence and found them to be quite tasty. To this, Lou immediately responded, "I can supply you with enough for the next year if you like." He never lost an opportunity to promote his projects, but more than that to promote the poor and what our commitment to them ought to be.
I have attended many wakes and funerals of Scarboro missioners and listened to the stories shared there. Each missioner has left a legacy, a challenge, for us. We need to keep telling their stories to keep the legacy and the gifts alive. I continue to marvel and give thanks at how God works in and through each and every one of us.
FR. LOU NEVER LOST AN OPPORTUNITY TO PROMOTE THE POOR AND WHAT OUR COMMITMENT TO THEM OUGHT TO BE.
At the end of Fr. Lou's funeral, I reminded the people that we too are called to respond to the words of the angel addressed to Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus: "Why look for the living among the dead? You won't find him here. He is risen."
We believe in the resurrection and we know that Fr. Lou lives, for life is changed not ended. Also, in a very real way he lives in the hearts and minds of the people of Ocoa and the Dominican Republic, and in the hearts and minds of countless Canadians.
Fr. Jack Lynch is Superior General of Scarboro Missions.