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Irish Pastoral Center promotes culture and community across generations


Irish Pastoral Center chaplain Father Dan Finn and executive director Mary Swanton. Pilot photo/courtesy Irish Pastoral Center

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DORCHESTER -- From visiting the incarcerated to holding a preschool playgroup and assisting exchange students to organizing community events, the Irish Pastoral Center aims to serve the spiritual, social, and cultural needs of the local Irish community.

The Irish Pastoral Center (IPC), which calls itself "a parish without boundaries," is a collaboration between the Archdiocese of Boston and the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference in Ireland. It was founded in 1987 out of St. Mark Parish in Dorchester in response to an influx of Irish immigrants to the Greater Boston Area. The IPC provides a wide variety of services and resources, assisting clients with accommodation, employment, counseling, immigration, spiritual support, and referrals for social work.

"Everything that we do here is really about maintaining dignity," said Mary Swanton, who recently began serving as the IPC's executive director.

Although the center was founded by and for the Irish community, it also serves Dorchester residents from many other countries, including Haiti, Vietnam, and Cape Verde.

"We are a center that's open for all, but we're formed out of our own heritage," Swanton, a native of County Limerick, said in a March 8 interview.

One of the Center's founders was Father Dan Finn, who now serves as its chaplain. Originally from County Cork, he immigrated to the U.S. in 1964 when he was 18 years old.

In his view, Father Finn said, "our mission has to do with the corporal works of mercy."

This is evident in many of the center's services. They shelter the homeless by helping people find accommodations. The chaplaincy program includes outreach to the sick and imprisoned. And throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Father Finn has celebrated at least two funerals each week, as well as many memorial Masses requested by people who cannot attend their relatives' funerals in Ireland.

Swanton said that crisis response is "a big part of what we do here," though she said she could not share the best examples for confidentiality reasons.

"We have some pretty real situations here, and we're very proud of the fact that we've been able to help so many, especially during COVID, migrate from a pretty bad situation to kind of making life bearable again," she said.

The IPC's employment center offers resources to help both employers and job seekers. Since finding employment can be difficult for those with no career history in the U.S., they assist clients with resume building and making connections to find jobs.

The IPC refers clients to partner organizations for social work -- especially mental health services, the need for which has increased significantly during the pandemic.

"Instead of them having to go blindly into the healthcare system, possibly for the first time, we can work with them with resources to open the door for them so that it's more of a comfortable approach," Swanton said.

The center holds immigration clinics twice a month, where people can have a free, confidential one-on-one consultation with an experienced attorney.

"To have some place to come where there is a sense of trust and confidentiality is critically important to them," Father Finn said.

The IPC also helps immigrants navigate the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. Swanton said many are intimidated by the fact that obtaining citizenship requires taking a test, so the IPC helps them prepare for it.

"We get people on the path to citizenship, and we help them out every way we can to make sure that that's their end result," Swanton said.

The center can also help the children of Irish immigrants to obtain dual citizenship with Ireland.

"Just as we were welcomed to America when we became citizens, we welcome them to Ireland when they get their dual citizenship," Swanton said.

While much of the Center's work has to do with helping people adjust to a new country and address crisis situations, it also has ongoing programs for people to build community based on their shared heritage.

"The organization encompasses life from the cradle to the grave," Swanton said.

Father Finn added, "We cater to all, every step of the way."

There is a weekly mother and toddler group where parents and caretakers can meet and support each other while their children play together. They hold an annual "Family Fun Day," where families wear their "county colors" and participate in games and contests.

"It's a great way for young mothers, using the heritage and the faith to bind them together in a country that's new, they're able to build their own new community," Swanton said.

The IPC's senior outreach program is "very popular," connecting many people who immigrated during the 1950s and 1960s.

To serve people's spiritual needs, the center's chaplaincy program provides marriage preparation courses, help in times of illness, and home and hospital visits to the elderly and sick. They can also celebrate baptisms, weddings, and Masses for the sick or deceased.

"Generation after generation after generation, in times of persecution and colonization, the faith was the centerpiece and rock on which our ancestors built their lives. And we want to keep that focus as our greatest treasure and pass it on," Father Finn said.

Like most organizations, the IPC had to change its methods of operation during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as take steps to address the essential needs that were created or exacerbated by it.

Swanton said there is an Irish word that encapsulates the Center's response to the pandemic: "meitheal," meaning "community."

"It goes back to the old times when, during the harvest, the neighbors would come and help each other, instead of each family trying to do all the work themselves. They learned to lean on each other," Swanton explained.

She said they had a "massive" response to provide food and housing to those who needed them at the start of the pandemic. Thanks to their donors, they were able to grant about $80,000 in support.

"Everybody rose to the occasion with COVID, knew that we were going to experience hardship, and stood up. (It was a) very, very proud moment for the organization to see community collaboration at its best," Swanton said.

As the IPC prepared to switch much of its work to virtual models, a volunteer visited senior residents to show them how to access Zoom so they could enroll in virtual activities like bingo and yoga. The center has maintained phone contact with older members of the community throughout the pandemic.

"That's become a very vital component, which I think will continue long after COVID because of the great success there," Swanton said.

Similarly, they have had to suspend in-person ministry to prisoners, but they have maintained contact by telephone and hope to resume visits in the future.

The pandemic also prompted the IPC to create and distribute a monthly newsletter featuring Irish poems and stories, information about the center, and both local and international news. The newsletter is distributed among local businesses and mailed to 350 seniors, allowing them to stay connected with their community even if they cannot or prefer not to use the Internet.

Swanton said they look forward to again being able to hold small cultural celebrations, such as concerts, guest speakers, dance lessons for children, and special Masses.

"We're looking forward to getting our rhythm back, because that's who we are," Swanton said.

More information about the Irish Pastoral Center is available at www.ipcboston.org.

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