Following Father Finn
By Greg Schaber
The spring of 1925 was a time of great optimism at the University. Since the end of World War I, a wave of new construction had swept across campus—Alumni Science Hall, Corcoran Field, Hinkle Hall, Elet Hall. And at age 66, Francis J. Finn, S.J., had watched the University’s progress for more than 35 years.
As a trustee, he had a vision for the future built on a strong understanding of the past. So when the University’s sports teams needed a nickname, Finn reached into the history of the University’s first president, John Elet, S.J., whose close relative was a member of the French Legion of Honor. Finn’s suggestion: “Musketeers” and the motto “All for one and one for all.”
To be certain, the chivalric spirit of the French warriors must have appealed to an avowed idealist like Finn. But on a deeper level, their dedication in the face of adversity paralleled his own. A man of fragile health and self-deprecating humor who saw himself not as a leader, but as “a good second fiddler,” Finn nevertheless turned his life into a symphony of achievement that had a profound impact on the University and society in general.
Finn, for instance, single-handedly resuscitated Catholic children’s literature, authoring 27 books, and enjoyed a long career as a successful educator and fund-raiser. In the process, according to accounts published after his death, he became one of the best-known and best-loved men in Cincinnati, a man comfortable with the poor and the powerful of all ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Finn’s impact is still felt at the University. His concern for students and his determination to offer a better education provide the spiritual cornerstones for the Fr. Finn Award, given annually to an outstanding senior, and the Fr. Finn Society, an organization that recognizes those who include Xavier in their financial or estate planning and thus help carry his ideals into the future.
In the classic tradition, Finn’s story has humble beginnings. Born in St. Louis in 1859 to Irish immigrants, he enrolled in St. Malachy’s parish school as a youth, but his father, believing his son exceptionally gifted, soon transferred him to a private school. At age 10, Finn entered St. Louis University, then a high school, where he studied until age 17. Though he rarely lived up to his father’s academic expectations, Finn found his vocation there, joining the Society of Jesus in 1877.
Ill health soon intervened, however, and after 13 months, his superiors decided the strain of Jesuit life was too much for the novice and freed him of his obligation. Reflecting on their decision, Finn agreed. “Humanly speaking, I was not fit for the life of the Society,” he said. “Humanly speaking, I say. God often chooses instruments in themselves most unfit to do his work.”
A determined Finn reentered the Society in 1879, but continued to struggle with his health. By his ordination in 1891, Finn’s training included a brief assignment at the University as well as the publication of three children’s books. In these he established his hallmarks of high ideals and right choices.
Finn returned to Xavier in 1897 to teach postgraduate literature. In 1901, he was placed in charge of St. Xavier Parochial School in downtown Cincinnati, a position he never relinquished. There he created an endowment to make the school the first free parochial school in Ohio and started a library to get Catholic literature into the hands of young people.
Finn continued his relationship with the University as well, serving as a trustee. But by 1925, Finn was diagnosed with chronic nephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys. He died on Nov. 2, 1928.
To the end, though, he remained a loyal supporter of Xavier. A newspaper memorial recalled that he “never missed a St. Xavier College football game, going to the games this year despite his weakened condition.”