Fr. Finn, Tom Playfair, and St. Mary's
"I had arrived in St. Mary's early in February. The first impressions were far from favorable. There was inadequate housing; the yards were in fearful condition, with the result that all the stairways and corridors in our residence were plastered with mud. The playgrounds were filled with pools of water and nearly all the boys navigated in rubber boots.
"The priests greeted me with open arms; they were glad to see me. They wanted a man to take the preparatory class in hand. That class of about 48 boys had been at a loose end from the beginning of the year to the time of my arrival. Three teachers had already essayed the task of handling the young gentlemen of this class, and three teachers had given up in despair. To this class I was assigned.
"I told the boys that I would take it for granted that every one of them was all right, all that he should be. 'Now,' I continued, 'I shall tell you what I am going to do. This is our first day together. If you behave decently during our class hours today, I am going to tell you a story during the last half-hour of class.'
"My announcement excited the first signs of enthusiasm I had thus far seen in that motley assembly. They did behave that day, and at three-thirty, I began the story of Oliver Twist. How those boys did listen! The men and women of this moving-picture age can hardly imagine the enthusiasm of those boys."
In these words, Francis Finn described an event that took place well over a century ago, in 1881. At that time, their writer was a young Jesuit scholastic studying to become a priest. He had been sent to help teach in a certain Jesuit boys' school "out West" - eastern Kansas, that is; and had just stepped off the train at a place called St. Mary's College.
Little did he dream that the stories he would write, based on his experiences in this boys' school, would immortalize St. Mary's and his fictional all-American Catholic boy, "Tom Playfair." Francis Finn would give to American youth their first Catholic fiction in a series of books as popular then as "The Hardy Boys" would be to another generation.
First of all, who was Fr. Finn? His stories delighted hundreds of thousands of youngsters in the early part of this century, but this priest who loved children was unknown to his vast audience of young readers. Toward the end of his life he dictated his memoirs to a friend; the last being written only a few days before he died on November 2, 1928. The following year, the well-known writer, Daniel A. Lord, S.J., edited and published these memories in Fr. Finn, S.J., a rare old book in which we have discovered the intriguing story of Fr. Finn's life, and the humility of the good priest himself.
Francis Finn's Irish parents emigrated to America to escape the great famine in their homeland. They settled in St. Louis, where Francis was born on October 4, 1859. His life would span the great changes from the closing of the American frontier to the mechanization of modern times.
Francis was a typical little boy - not bad, but not very pious! He played hooky from St. Malachy's parish school, got caught, and never tried again. He dreaded his First Confession because he believed the priest would spank him; and was much relieved to discover that confessors don't spank sinners.
Once during an illness, Francis was given several books to read. Among them was Fabiola by Cardinal Wiseman. Reading a novel of the early Christian martyrs had a profound effect on young Francis. Religion really began to mean something to him. In time he would be led to the life-long conviction, "One of the greatest things in the world is to get the right book into the hands of the right boy or girl. No one can indulge in reading to any extent without being largely influenced for better or for worse." Father Finn was sad to see youths lose their faith because they had read anything and everything - books dangerous to morals, books against the Faith. He wanted to give to the young something good and Catholic to read.
In any case, young Francis became a ravenous reader. His idea of a holiday was to curl up with a book from morning till night, with time out only to eat. He was eleven now, and attending the Jesuit School, St. Louis University, which was then a high school and boarding school. He learned what it was like to be a "new boy" scorned by the "old boys" who called him "Skinny."
Our young Francis had spent so much time reading that - except for the muscles in his head - his physique was very poorly developed. He set about exercising, putting away a good deal of food, and getting the better of his tormentors in a few scuffles. Soon, he wasn't called "Skinny" anymore.
But his reading habit continued and the eleven-year-old began reading the works of Charles Dickens, devouring Nicholas Nickleby and Pickwick Papers. Deciding he was reading too much, his family tried to limit him to one hour a day - a real martyrdom. He was ever grateful to the Jesuit who told his parents, "Let the boy read. When he grows up who knows but he may become a writer."
Young Francis has already written a "wonderful" story of savage Indians and brave pioneers, some 50 pages in length. Unfortunately, he never read the story himself because he couldn't read his own writing!
After making his First Holy Communion (at the age of about 12 in those days), Francis became much more spiritual, and his secret ambition was to become a Jesuit priest. But gradually his desire cooled, his grades dropped, and his vocation might have been lost if not for Father Charles Coppens (the same Fr. Coppens who would later become Rector of St. Mary's) who urged Francis to apply himself to his Latin, to improve it by using an all-Latin prayer book, and to read good Catholic books. The other influence to which Fr. Finn credited the saving of his vocation was the Sodality of Our Lady; he never missed a Sunday afternoon.
Francis was about 18 when he entered the Jesuit novitiate and began his very up-and-down years of study for the priesthood. He recounts what it was like to learn to keep silence, to be unable to play his violin whenever he wanted, and to wear a cassock without tripping on it when running up the stairs. Francis was thoroughly happy with his fellow novices; how they laughed together at recreation and enjoyed their baseball games! The thirty-day retreat, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, brought Francis to a new closeness to Our Lord.
But then came the trial of his life - illness, which would always be his cross and his way to patience and holiness. Francis began to have one ailment after another. Sent home to recover his strength, away from the routine of studying, Francis would bloom with good health. He even became a fair athlete. But back at the seminary, he would get sick again. His studies were interrupted repeatedly with these mysterious bouts of illness. Sometimes the situation was humorous: as when Francis had back trouble and could not remain in a sitting position. He could only find relief standing or lying flat. He attended lectures stretched out on a couch. At the same time, he was plagued with insomnia: he could not sleep. His fellow scholars - in their chairs - fought to stay awake, while Francis on his couch couldn't have slept if he tried! Ordinarily, he would have been dismissed from the seminary, his health problems seen as a sign from God that he did not have a vocation. He himself always felt he was an unworthy candidate for the priesthood due to his interrupted studies. Yet his superiors kept him on. He wrote, "Humanly speaking, I was not fit for the life of the Society. Humanly speaking, I say. God often chooses instruments in themselves most unfit to do His work." Father Lord ranks Father Finn as one of "the world's great sick men."
The novices were encouraged - as a means to get rid of self-will and to increase their spiritual perfection - to pray that God would send them to the place they least wanted to go and give them the work most repugnant to them. Well, the place Francis dreaded most was St. Mary's, Kansas, Then a Jesuit boarding school for boys; and the job he feared was to be prefect in a boarding school. Imagine how he felt when his superiors decided that because of his constant stomach problems and headaches he needed another break from study and some active work to revive his health, and assigned him to St. Mary's as a prefect. Yet it was a move that would lead to the realization of his great vocation - to write stories for the young.
At St. Mary's, Fr. Finn, teacher and prefect, learned (sometimes the hard way) how to teach and discipline boys. They came to love him, and never forgot him. One day he mentioned to Fr. Kinsella, a most literary priest, his lifelong dream of becoming a writer. Fr. Kinsella, after reading sever manuscripts, replied, "My advice to you, Mr. Finn, is to give up all idea of writing for publication. There is nothing in your work to show that you will ever make a writer." What a blow! But Francis obediently accepted the verdict.
One afternoon while supervising a class who were busy writing a composition, Mr. Finn thought of how they represented to him the typical American Catholic boy. With nothing else to do, he took up pencil and paper. "Why not write about such boys as are before me?" In no time at all he had dashed off the first chapter of Tom Playfair. When he read it aloud to the class, they loved it! Of course, they wanted more. Finding time to write was no problem, because at this time Francis Finn was suffering from insomnia. In the middle of every night, unable to sleep, his imagination lively, he dashed off another chapter or two for his boys - never dreaming he was writing for a world-wide audience.
Tom Playfair's progress toward publication was about as jerky as Mr. Finn's as he advanced in fits and starts towards the priesthood. He might be sent back to St. Louis or Woodstock for a while to continue his studies, then back to St. Mary's or on to Cincinnati to teach again, all depending on his precarious health. Wherever he was, he dug out the much-corrected pages of "Tom" and boys never failed to love it. At Woodstock he was asked to give a reading for a little celebration. He brought out "Tom" and read the chapter where Tom attempts to "exorcise" Jimmie Green. "To add to the dramatic effect I posted a brother behind stage with an armful of crockery. When I read out, 'suddenly the bed crashed,' my conspirator dropped the crockery." The reading was a great success. The very literary Fr. Fagan said, "Mr. Finn, if you had more chapters like that... it would make a Catholic version of Tom Brown's School Days." Did he have more! Happily he brought out his bales of manuscript. At last Francis had someone to encourage him!
Finally, after much patching and editing, Tom Playfair was published. Other books rushed after it: Percy Wynn, and Harry Dee, where the setting of St. Mary's was again the background for the story. In all, Fr. Finn would write 27 books for young people and they would be translated into ten languages and even into Braille.
Reading Fr. Finn's books caused many a boy to consider entering the priesthood, and although he disguised the school as "St. Maure's" in his books, everyone knew it was St. Mary's, so much so that SMC came to be advertised as "Tom Playfair's School."
And what happened to Francis Finn? He was ordained at last in 1891, the same year "Tom" was officially published. He spent many years of his priestly life at St. Xavier's in Cincinnati where the boys and girls of his parish school loved him dearly. There, he would be inspired to write one of his best-loved stories about a little girl, The Fairy of the Snows.
Before Fr. Finn's efforts, there was no Catholic fiction for youngsters in the U.S. He was the first in his field, but he never begrudged new writers who invaded that field of juvenile fiction; instead, he encouraged his competitors.
St. Mary's grew into an institution famous all over the U.S. - and it was partly due to Francis Finn that it became so well known. As Fr. Finn wrote in his 1891 preface to Tom Playfair, "Now it is a college with a history of which it may well be proud. The 'old church building,' the little boys' dormitory and washroom, the long, low frame structure used as an infirmary, are gone; new and nobler piles have arisen in the places so that the college of today... has 'growed out of knowledge'; and yet the sweet spirit of faith and prayer has abided unchanged amid all the changes."