Fr Finbarr Linehan
In April 1999, our community experienced one of those significant moments in its history with the death of Fr Finbarr who was one of the foundation group of monks who came from Ireland in 1954. During all those years since then, Fr Finbarr became something of an institution in his own right both in the community and with the hundreds or maybe thousands of visitors who have been here over the years.
Fr Finbarr was baptised Michael Joseph and was the third of six children born to Hannah and Edmund Linehan. When young Michael was only a year old, the family moved from Donoughmore where he was born in 1912 to the village of Glantane, near the town of Mallow. It was in Glantane that Michael went to school and received his religious education; he received his first Holy Communion there and served there as an altar boy. The Cistercian connection began for him when his parents sent him to secondary school at the college operated by the monks of our mother-house, Mt St Joseph Abbey, Roscrea.
By the end of his secondary schooling, Michael had begun to set his course in life: it would be the priesthood for him, and it was not surprising that he should choose the minor seminary run by the Cistercians at Mt Melleray to begin his studies for the priesthood. However, when he had completed his philosophical studies there, his vocation became more specific and he applied for and was accepted into the novitiate at Roscrea in 1934. Fr Finbarr used to say afterwards that while he gained so much from Mt Melleray, it was his six years of schooling at Roscrea that decided him to go there. The fact that a cousin of his, Fr Colman, was already a member of Roscrea community might also have influenced his decision.
The more or less uneventful years of monastic and theological formation followed and Fr Finbarr took his solemn vows in 1939. A year later he was ordained priest at Roscrea. As far as Fr Finbarr then knew, the rest of his life would be centred at Mt St Joseph Abbey and he devoted himself to the offices he was given – teaching in the College and, later, Novice Master for the Brothers.
Things took a surprising turn, though, when in 1954 he was asked to be a member of the foundation group of monks who were to set out for distant Australia. After a last visit to his family home he left with the other founders on the long journey by sea and arrived at Tarrawarra, which was to be his home for the rest of his life, in October 1954. Though the opportunity was there in post-Conciliar years, Fr Finbarr chose not to visit Ireland again.
The next forty-five years passed in the relative obscurity of a Cistercian monastic community, years which were really packed with events of all sorts and yet, from another point of view, marked by the unvarying routine of Cistercian life. It was here, probably, that Fr Finbarr left the community his greatest legacy, that of unwavering fidelity to the round of the monastic day: he was always there, be it at the divine Office, at work, at meals, at reading and prayer. In the earlier years he was again Father Master of the Brothers. In later years, he spent much time in the guesthouse and it was here that he came to be known and loved by so many people. His spontaneous spiritual talks at breakfast time in the guests’ dining room, sometimes humorously referred to as “homilies on toast”, often left a deep impression on our visitors.
His last couple of years were marked by declining health. A stroke rendered him partially incapacitated and he became more and more confined to a wheelchair and less and less able to communicate. However, Br Joseph, the infirmarian, wheeled him in to the church for the hours of the Office and for Mass whenever possible and there he would join in with the psalms and chants, the familiar words and cadences coming to him when ordinary conversation had eluded him. He was there at Mass and Vespers on the 3rd Sunday of the Easter season and was present at the evening community meal.
The end came quickly. He became ill during the night and was taken to Healesville Hospital. Very early the next morning, 19 April, the hospital telephoned to say that his condition was deteriorating. The Abbot and a few others went immediately to the hospital but Fr Finbarr had died by the time they got there. The monks gathered around his bedside for the last anointing and the prayers for the dead.
His funeral on 22 April was attended by many friends and the liturgy was peaceful and marked by a kind of quiet joy and thanksgiving for a wonderful life, well lived. It was a glorious Yarra Valley autumn day when we laid him to rest in the monastery cemetery in the land which Fr Finbarr, following the call of God, had truly made his own. It’s a trite thing to say, perhaps, but happens to be true in Fr Finbarr’s case: the place won’t be the same without him. May he rest in peace.