BY TERRY DICKSON
OCEAN SPRINGS — Deacon Martin Finnegan, the first permanent deacon ordained for the Diocese of Biloxi, died July 12 following a 12-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 83.
A Mass of Christian Burial for Deacon Finnegan was celebrated July 11 at St. Elizabeth Seton Church in Ocean Springs. Bishop Louis F. Kihneman III was principal celebrant and homilist. Concelebrants were Father Sergio Balderas, pastor of St. Elizabeth Seton Parish; Father George Kitchin, former pastor; Father George Murphy, Father Tony Arguelles, Father Mike Snyder, Father Godfrey Andoh and Father Vincent Ajayi. Deacon Michael Butler assisted Bishop Kihneman; also present were other members of the permanent deacon community. Burial followed at Evergreen Cemetery.
“Deacon Martin was a man of deep, deep faith and it’s that faith that really drove him in his life, especially in his service to the Church as a deacon since 1979,” Bishop Kihneman said during his homily.
“Our relationship with Jesus is at the heart of our faith and it is at the heart of who we are called to be. In each of the vocations that we live, whether it is in married life or single life, or religious life or priesthood or the diaconate, all of those vocations are really meant to be tied to Jesus Christ personally. It is the kind of relationship which is a love relationship beyond all love relationships. Obviously, for each of our couples that are married, your love for each other represents how Jesus loves His Church. That is what Brenda and Martin were able to share (as a married couple) for almost 60 years. That is a gift.”
Bishop Kihneman further noted that relationship with Jesus is meant to take precedence over our lives, and added that was certainly the case with Deacon Finnegan, especially when it came to the trials and tribulations he faced for the past 12 years. “Martin had cancer — and that’s how I met him, actually, because I anointed him the first time I saw him,” Bishop Kihneman said. “The Anointing of the Sick is a moment, and, in that moment, Martin really had a smile on his face. He was lifted up in love. That is really who he has been in life, a man of great love, a man of great faith and a man of great hope.”
Bishop Kihneman said that despite Deacon Finnegan’s illness, he never lost hope. “When you have an illness like that, it can drain your hope, but he had faith in Jesus Christ,” said Bishop Kihneman. “He believed, and that belief came through every time you met him, every time you were with him. Obviously, he knew that none of us are going to get out of this life alive because, in the end, all of us are going to get out of this life alive in Christ. That was his faith. That is what he believed. That is what he knew in his life. That is what he lived as a husband and as a father and also as a deacon.” Bishop Kihneman alluded to the words of St. John’s
Gospel, where he writes, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?
“I can’t wait to see the place he’s got for Deacon Martin,” the bishop said. “Think about what is in it. That place is a place of deep love. There would be love in every corner and on every shelf.” Bishop Kihneman continued, “The Lord has called (Deacon Finnegan) to Himself and we now lift him up in prayer and deep love but knowing that the Lord has truly prepared a place for him.” “Where Jesus is, Deacon Martin wanted to go.”
The bishop assured the Finnegan family and all in attendance that they now have a powerful intercessor in Deacon Finnegan.
“I pray that God’s peace will be yours. It’s hard, it really is, even with a man of deep faith, but rest assured I believe that you have a powerful intercessor in heaven,” he said. “Deacon Martin is speaking at the feet of Jesus every moment of every day for all of you.”
A life of service
Deacon Finnegan was born in Rose Hill, MS, on a snowy February 22, 1940, to Charles and Ruth Graham Finnegan, the third of six children. The doctor arrived in a horse and buggy, as he couldn’t drive in the snow-storm.
He lived with his family in Petal, MS, and in Aiken, South Carolina, before moving to Hattiesburg, where he graduated from Sacred Heart School in 1959. He entered the U.S. Air Force that year and served as an aircraft mechanic and flight chief in Texas, Missouri and in Thule, Greenland, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1963, he married his high school sweetheart, the former Brenda Brown, and attended Mississippi State University. They moved to Pascagoula in 1966, where he went to work at Chevron Refinery.
Ordained as the first permanent deacon for the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi on June 17, 1979, at the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Bishop Joseph Lawson Howze, he served as deacon at Sacred Heart in Pascagoula from 1979-1988. He also was Sacred Heart School Board president; parish council president, a Boy Scout leader, and chaplain to Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts in the Diocese of Biloxi. He was chaplain at the Port of Pascagoula with the Apostleship of the Sea. He enjoyed traveling with Msgr. Gregory Johnson to Canada and Seattle to the Apostleship of the Sea international meetings, and also served on the boards of both the Cursillo of South Mississippi, and the de l’Epee Deaf Center, Inc. He was employed as a process operator and later as a national certified board inspector at Chevron Refinery in Pascagoula from 1966-1985, traveling to many locations, including San Juan, Puerto Rico; El Segundo, California; and Hartford, Connecticut. He was an eager spectator at any of
his children’s activities in school — soccer, dance and cheerleading — and even pierced his high school son’s ear when he requested to have it done. Whatever activ-ity his children were interested in became his interest as well.
In 1985, he took early retirement from Chevron Refinery to teach religion at Our Lady of Victories High School (now Resurrection High School) in Pascagoula, serving as director of religious education there from 1985-1988.
During that time, he and his family traveled to the diocesan mission at Saltillo, Mexico, where he assisted Father Patrick Quinn (who was their first pastor at Sacred Heart in Pascagoula) at Masses, baptisms, marriages, and visited the sick in the parish and barrios, as well as in the many small churches in the outlying ranchos.
He was appointed as the first deacon Director of the Diaconate by Bishop Howze in 1986. He and his wife were mentors to several diaconate classes in the diocese, and he helped organize the second formation class of Biloxi deacons with the Mobile diocese.
On July 1, 1988, he was appointed by Bishop Howze to serve as the first deacon pastoral associate at St. Elizabeth Seton in Ocean Springs, and as Director of Religious Education and Youth. At St. Elizabeth Seton, he helped organize the Knights of Columbus Council #10499, on Nov. 6, 1990, serving as organizational Grand Knight and chaplain, and served as deacon there for 35 years.
Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011, he continued to serve at St. Elizabeth Seton until his illness deemed otherwise, first, under Father George Kitchin, Father Bernard Farrell, and now Father Sergio Balderas. Father Farrell and Deacon Finnegan first worked together at Sacred Heart Parish in Pascagoula.
“I worked with him for 20 years and they were 20 very happy years,” said Father Farrell, who is retired and living in Canton, MS. “He was very committed to his work and, even though we didn’t always agree, we never had any type of falling out.” Father Farrell said Deacon Finnegan and his wife, Brenda, were a dynamic diaconal duo. “He had a great partner in Brenda. They were a great team,” he said. “He was very committed to his family. He was there for them when it was time to receive the sacraments and was present to them in their times of problems and difficulties. Even though their family was scattered among different places, Martin and Brenda were always on the road to help them whenever they could. They were a very special family from that point of view. “I wish Brenda all my prayers and I’m sure that Martin is up there with the good Lord. If not, we’re all going to struggle.”
Father Kitchin was pastor of St. Elizabeth Seton Parish from 1988 until 2002, and Deacon Finnegan was his Pastoral Associate for the majority of his pastorate.
“One of the keys to the success of our relationship was my father Leon Kitchin and my mother Effie Smith Kitchin were together one weekend a month in Jackson (MS) in the Deacon training program of the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson with Martin and Brenda for about three years,” said Father Kitchin.
“Another key was the Finnegans’ commitment to youth and adult religious education in living out their Catholic faith. Of course, their remarkably friendly relationships with others were key to all this success. “I asked our parish council to take on the financial support of Deacon Martin’s full-time ministry in the parish CCD program and Adult Education. and to allow him to spend one-fourth of his time overseeing the Diocese of Biloxi diaconate program after Bishop Howze appointed Deacon Martin to oversee it. The Parish Council was delighted to be able to provide financial support for all these programs. The parishioners were delighted, and our parish income increased significantly to cover all these services.”
Deacon Finnegan remained active far beyond the age of 75, when permanent deacons are required to turn in their retirement letter. He continued to assist Father Balderas, who became pastor in 2014. “Deacon Martin was a man of God, and the community loved him so much,” Father Balderas said. “As pastor I was blessed to have him around. He helped with baptisms, weddings, funerals, Communion for the home-bound and benediction and adoration on Tuesdays. He was kind as a deacon, and willing to preach or celebrate communion services when he was needed.
“When we built the new administrative building and the three classrooms, I wanted to give him a surprise, no one knew about it, just the person who did the signs for each office,” added Father Balderas. “We dedicated the Adult Education classroom with his name. When we had the open house and blessing of the building, he was crying tears of joy after he saw his name outside the classroom.”
Deacon Gayden Harper, who was ordained in 2002, said, “When the history is written of the Diocese of Biloxi, Deacon Martin Finnegan will have a prominent role in our first 46 years of service to the people of God.” “Martin Finnegan was one of the most remarkable men I have ever known, and the gift of our friendship is an enduring treasure that will always be a part of me,” he continued. “One of the first of four Permanent Deacons ordained in 1979, Deacon Martin lived to see our com-munity of deacons grow to 50 ordained men and 12 in diaconal formation. When I visited him a week before his passing, after discussing this growth, Martin looked at me with that twinkle in his eye and said, ‘God has been so good to us, hasn’t he Gayden?’ The goodness of God was always on the lips of Deacon Martin Finnegan. You could count on it.”
Deacon Harper further noted that “As the first director of the diaconate program, Deacon Finnegan was the architect of the formation model that was widely respected and emulated by other Dioceses, and the model for diaconate classes through 2019.
“It was Deacon Martin’s vision and pastoral leadership that inspired so many of us, as he embodied the qualities of Christ the Servant. He loved others and always saw the best version of others, no matter the situation, always through positive eyes, and this example was so strong for us, his friends and the Deacon community. He steadfastly loved his priests, bishops, parishioners, deacons, and encouraged those same qualities from those of us in formation and Diaconal Service.” Deacon Harper said that love also blanketed Deacon Finnegan’s family and the deacon community. “The love for his family was always part of conversations with Martin,” said Deacon Harper. “Brenda, Kenneth, Natalie, and Darren, were always in his heart. From the Deacons, he expected an identity as one who serves, and reminded us that, at ordination, we were configured to Christ the Servant, which is to love. This was his mantra and is his legacy. “Deacon Martin was a faithful mentor and encourager. During my 12 years as Deacon Director, I often sought his advice and counsel. His quiet wisdom and love was inspiring, but it was his dependence and trust in prayer that was humbling and energizing. Martin Finnegan’s best friend was Jesus Christ. After each conversation with Martin, I knew something special had occurred, because Martin willingly revealed his heart.”
Deacon Warren Goff, who was ordained in 1993, also looked at Deacon Finnegan as a mentor.
“When I felt like God was calling me to be a deacon, I was scared to death,” said Deacon Goff. “Martin knew that because I talked to him about it. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. I loved him for always standing by me. He showed me what a deacon looked like. Martin was so affirming, and I don’t know if I would be a deacon today if it wasn’t for his affirmation.”
Deacon Dick Henderson, also a member of the Class of 1993, said Deacon Finnegan was “a humble servant of God and God’s people.” “There was no diaconate formation program after his, the 1979 class, was ordained. He started from scratch and developed the 1993 program. Single-handedly he formed the diaconate program for the Biloxi Diocese and single-handedly ran it,” said Deacon Henderson. “He was constantly concerned about the candidates in that 1993 class, checking on them and assisting them in whatever way necessary to help them get through the program. “He was a gentle and kind man; soft-spoken and a natural leader. We, the class of 1993, happily and gratefully followed, loved, and respected him. In his actions and demeanor, he taught us how we were supposed to be servants of God and servants of mankind. He was the servant to which we all aspired.”
Along with his wife Brenda, Deacon Finnegan is survived by his three children, Kenneth (Kari Branch), Natalie (Kelly Cusimano) and Darren (Renee); six grandchildren, Talia (Matt) Haebler, Kelly (Stacey) Finnegan, Andrew (Mike) Finnegan; Isabelle and Lucy Terranova and Georgia Cusimano, and two great-grandsons, Woods Finnegan Haebler, and Jack Wade Finnegan.
He is also survived by one brother, Charles Finnegan, and three sisters: Sister Chabanel (Annie Ruth) Finnegan, Elizabeth Ann Low, and Mary Frances (David) Ford and sisters-in-law, Brook Finnegan; Susan (John) Kitchin; Joanne (Robert) Byrd; Tori (Eddie) Hickson and brothers-in-law: Michael (Patricia) Brown; Gerald (Susan) Brown; and Patrick Brown. Other survivors include his former daughter-in-law, Alice Fish Barattini (Lawrence), and their son, Lucien, honorary grandson, and many nieces, nephews and cousins, as well as the community of deacons of the Diocese of Biloxi.