Bishop Irwin: 'A giant of a man in so many ways'

That is what Sister Zita M. Fleming, CSJ, said just after the Mass of Christian Burial at St. Raphael's in Medford.

Full disclosure: The Most Reverend Francis X. Irwin recruited the both of us into service for the archdiocese. Sister had a job she loved at Regis, and I was equally content teaching and practicing social work with the aged in Boston neighborhoods. But, when -- at the time -- Father Frank Irwin appeared at your door, he never failed to make an offer you could refuse.

That was 30 years ago. Neither of us have regretted saying yes since. Part of it was response to the mission that Father Irwin outlined, part of it was that he convinced you that the project was really your idea. After all, he was among those Boston priests who earned a master's in social work to better serve the Church. The truth is that he could have taught many of the courses at B.C. School of Social Work. He had that blend of common wisdom and pastoral experience.

For many years, Father Irwin was the face of Catholic social action in this town. He enjoyed a high degree of respect in Boston's diffuse advocacy community, which could seem dominated by voices at odds with many Catholic positions on life. Most hot button priorities of the time like poverty, child welfare, immigration/refugee work, handicapped accessibility, housing, and bilingual education were broadly shared by the archdiocese.

The pandemic of HIV/AIDS, however, presented a watershed moment between the secular health and social service community and the archdiocese. It was also one of those moments demonstrating Father Irwin's leadership in both sectors.

A study he commissioned determined that the greatest unmet need among people suffering from AIDS was housing. This was a time in which people living with AIDS were treated like biblical lepers -- at best. With the support of Cardinal Law, Catholic Charities opened a number of congregate living facilities for this desperate population. We also were inspired to provide specialized adoption possibilities for the high number of AIDS-infected orphans projected in the early 90s.

"Francis X. Irwin, 'Frank' to us," said Sister Zita, "will be forever remembered for his joyful spirit and his compassionate heart that knew no boundaries. He established the Office of AIDS Ministry, one of the first such outreach programs in Boston, to those living with AIDS. It was my privilege to minister with him as its first director. His compassionate presence brought hope and blessings to so many who felt abandoned by the Church. His gifts of joy, tears, strength, gentleness, and yes, holiness, have left his mark on the hearts of many. Frank Irwin was indeed, one of the 'giants' in the Archdiocese of Boston."

Thirty years later, the retired North Regional Bishop was living among the Boston diaspora south of the Sagamore Bridge, which afforded my wife Mary and me the opportunity to resume a social relationship with my former boss. Early on, it was dinners close to his home in Dennis. He could always be caught celebrating Sunday Mass at St. Pius X in Dennis.

As time went on, his health deteriorated. The amputation, obviously, made it more difficult for him to maintain his broad network of friends. It only intensified his buoyant spirit and resolve to continue to make a contribution. Refusing to be, in his words, "a pity case," he got an electrified wheelchair that he treated more like a motorcycle. On Sunday mornings, with his brother Gene's help, he would take the "B Bus," handicapped public transportation, from his home to St. Pius. Before Mass, he would whiz up and down aisles greeting the few people who missed him coming in. Once on the totally accessible altar, he would celebrate the holy sacrifice. His brief and pithy homilies were among the characteristics endearing him to the people.

Never quick to pick up the phone, towards the end of his life contact with the late bishop was actually easier. We would too often see his name on our call lists as Eucharistic Ministers at the hospital. Over a span of months, he would cycle into long stays in hospital, go to rehab, go home for a bit, then back to the hospital to repeat the cycle.

Just looking at him was a mirror of pain, discomfort, and disconnection. Rather than complain, he succeeded in maintaining his dignity, his razor sharp wit, and his love of life. Asked what we could do, one time he said, "Next time you come, could you please bring some grapes?"

In remembering Frank, many people relate funny stories he told, his great quips, his Irish wit. I will remember his beautifully simple theology of life, love for the Church as she is, and the way he taught us all how to live and how to die.

Sister is right. He was a giant.