REV. G. WILLIAM FINCH
CLASS OF 1988
The mood was forlorn. The crowd was overflow. The streets were parked up for blocks around. The moment was a sad one as the 11,000 member St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in Rockville,MD both mourned the sudden death and celebrated the life of Pastor Rev. G. William Finch. Some 1,300 mourners assembled at St. Raphael’s. Some 85 priests, vested in white, representing several dioceses, filled several rows of pews. Together, they concelebrated the Eucharist, simultaneously intoning the prayers of consecration.
Rev. Finch’s sudden passing just before Good Friday stunned the local Catholic community and many others throughout theWashingtonsuburbs. So far-reaching was Pastor Finch’s spiritual connection to the community, that Archbishop Donald Wuerl of the Washington D.C. Diocese interrupted his Holy Week activities to officiate as celebrant of the priest’s funeral mass. Known as a mega-church, the 11,000-member St. Raphael’s celebrates seven Masses every Sunday. Pastor Finch was their rock.
The beloved priest died suddenly on April 9 just after celebrating Maundy Thursday Mass, also known as Holy Thursday. Father Bill, as he was popularly known since 2002, had just finished Mass when he began complaining of shortness of breath. He had marked his own 55th birthday only a day before collapsing.
Father Bill was known as a ball of energy at St. Raphael’s. He added elementary classes to an already popular nursery school of 200 students. The parish kindergarten-3rd grade elementary school now has 100 students, while a new school is set to commence construction later in 2009. Father Bill remodelled the church, commissioned Italian artists to create a marble altar, designed a garden, and brought in forgotten statues of the Virgin Mary andSt. Josephto beautify the grounds.
But mostly, his flock remembered Father Bill as the epitome of what a priest should be. A fellow priest of the Archdiocese of Washington DC said that Father Bill will be dearly missed and his death leaves behind a spiritual void. His colleagues remembered him for his wisdom, an ability to transmit happiness, and moral decisiveness.
Rev. Finch was able to receive anointing before his death. "For him to die on Holy Thursday,” said the Rev. Terry Ehrman, “his death makes more intense all the basic questions, the mysteries we are trying to explore at this time of year: What is our faith? What is our life?" Rev. Ehrman anointed Finch in the moments before life left him. The dying priest was then rushed to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead of a heart attack.
Dying on Holy Thursday, the day commemorating the Last Supper of Christ with his apostles and also marking the creation of the priesthood, Father Bill left his large suburbanWashingtoncongregation with powerful Easter symbolism of hope for life after death. During Lent, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians spend the 40 days before Easter reflecting on mortality and preparation for the afterlife. According to witnesses, Father Bill died next to the parish statue ofSt. Joseph, the patron of a good death.
Upon learning of his abrupt death, the local catholic community was immediately grief-stricken yet inspired by the example of the jovial priest who loved red wine, Italian food and dancing. John Reutemann, a seminarian who came from the parish attested that Father Bill had a great bottle of wine the night before his death and said “As tragic as it was, it was kind of perfect…That's the way to go!" A parishioner, overcome with grief, referred to Father Bill’s passing as a “kind of beautiful death.” Many parishioners admitted it was difficult to be happy on Easter Sunday, which marks the joy of Christ’s Resurrection.
A parishioner, local realtor Michael Rose noted that Father Bill had allowed numerous community groups to assemble at the parish facilities free of charge. Alcoholics Anonymous, scouts, and other organizations used a parish hall for gatherings that benefited the community as a whole. “Father Bill put such an emphasis on hospitality; he taught that we must reach out to the community,” said Rose.
Ever an activist, Father Bill raised $100,000 from the congregation for Hurricane Katrina relief and brought to the area 20 people fromNew Orleanswho needed help getting on their feet. Days after the funeral, one parishioner said he is still shocked by his pastor’s passing, recalling the priest as a “visionary” and “the epitome of the Lord’s servant.” Parishioners contemplated the void the popular priest left behind and still reeled with pain even while they are trying to be comforted by their belief in resurrection.
While born a Baptist, Father Bill was received into the Catholic Church in his 20s after meeting nuns during construction work on a Carmelite monastery. Ordained a priest in 1989, he worked at three other area churches before going to St. Raphael's in 2002 where he made his greatest impact.