During his seven-and-a-half years as pastor of St. John’s Church in downtown Newark, Msgr. Jim Finnerty has met more than his fair share of unforgettable characters. For starters, there was a fellow who called himself Tony Baloney, an 80-year-old man with no known address. Then there was Mama, a bent-over, older-than-her-years woman who traveled the neighborhood behind a shopping cart. Clothes were piled so high in the cart it was a wonder she could see where she was going - and maybe she didn’t.
There was another fellow named Itchy, who got his nickname for reasons you are invited to imagine. Sometimes the characters arrived with no names, funny or otherwise. Among them were two youngish men who spent mornings arguing with each other - heatedly - about the stock market. "You have to like G.M. this week," one would say, which cued the other to play his allotted role in life. G.M.? "No, I like Ford." Neither one had a penny to his name. That’s why they were at St. John’s - to eat what might be their only meal of the day, prepared in the church’s soup kitchen and distributed by a corps of volunteers.
Monsignor Finnerty, known as "Father Jim" to people like Tony Baloney as well as to some of New Jersey’s best-known politicians and business leaders, says he learned lessons every day from the people who lined up outside his church for breakfast or dinner. These people have dignity, he said. They are poor, they are homeless, but they have their dignity. I’ve gotten sermons from some of the things they have taught me.
But there will be no more sermons at St. John’s for Father Jim. At the age of 76, he has retired, although that is hardly the word for the next stage of his ministry. He will continue to say Mass and hear confessions and otherwise practice his vocation at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Jersey City.
Father Jim is a New Jersey legend, although he would object to that description with great eloquence. It’s not that he started St. John’s outreach to Newark’s poor. The soup kitchen program there is nearly four decades old. Regrettably, there has never been a time in the last 38 years when it was not desperately needed. But Father Jim kept it going, reaching out to the business community for funds and volunteers. "Don’t talk to me about corporations being mean and evil," he said. "Corporations have been wonderful. They have been like godparents to those men and women."
St. John’s is the oldest Catholic parish in New Jersey, founded in 1826. Its history is a microcosm of the history of the urban Catholic experience in America. The parish grew from an anomaly to a fixture in the city as waves of Catholic immigrants made their home in downtown Newark. Now, it has returned to its roots. It is again an anomaly, an old building with a dwindling congregation, directly across the street from one of Newark’s crown jewels, its new Performing Arts Center. Several nights a week, wealthy and middle-class New Jerseyans, mostly from the suburbs, park their cars in the sprawling lots adjacent to the church. They cross the street to hear the New Jersey Symphony or Yo Yo Ma, and they may not even notice the old church tucked away in a corner.
In the morning, long after the suburbanites (like this writer) have left downtown Newark, other people begin to congregate near the church. They don’t have cars, nor do they have the money to patronize the Performing Arts Center. They line up to get their breakfast, which they know St. John’s will provide.
"I wish people would come and hang out with the people on that line," said Father Jim. "It’s a wonderful experience to talk to them, to hear their wisdom and witness their dignity. They are God’s children, and we respect that." Sometimes Father Jim would kid some of his taller guests, asking them if they would be willing to try out for the parish basketball team. "They get a kick out of that," he said.
"My lasting image of Father Jim is of him greeting men and women in the soup kitchen line," said Richard Kinney, a supporter of the church’s program who volunteers in the soup kitchen. "He knows many of them by name. He is there in the rain or snow, heat or cold. He is a living example of the Beatitudes."
The men and women on the line every morning and every evening live on the street, or in flimsy accommodations nearby. They may indeed have dignity, but they do not have basic medical care, and life expectancy on the street is not high. The two men who used to argue about the stock market while waiting for breakfast are dead, one of diabetes, the other of exposure one winter’s evening. For a while, Father Jim thought that Mama had met a similar fate, until she was spotted one morning after a long absence. Father Jim greeted her warmly, and told her that the word on the street had it that she was dead.
No, she explained, she simply was "on vacation in Elizabeth," another wounded city near Newark.
Father Jim said he will miss the men and women on the line, and they surely will miss him. But he is inclined to keep looking ahead, and why not? He loves the life that chose him.
"I have had a great time being a priest," he said, in the tone of somebody who believes there still are great times to come.