In grade and high school, I related history to big, boring textbooks, the painstaking memorization of dates, and Lewis and Clark, a favorite American history subject in a town of 1,500 people 30 miles from the Missouri River. In short, I wasn’t a huge fan of any of these things (poor Lewis and Clark)!
But St. Thomas has helped me realize that names, taking their place in history, are fascinating. There is a lot to be learned about the story of a person, place or thing by the name that it bears. Having grown up with knowledge of my small Nebraska town’s history, I found it interesting to come to the Twin Cities clueless; I had no idea what Grace Hall, Ireland Library or Finn Street referred to. If made to guess, I would have said something along the lines of, “Grace is supernatural aid given by God, Ireland is a country and Finn is … a formal way of spelling high-five lingo from ‘Finding Nemo’ (‘Dude. Gimme some Finn.’).” In the more than two years I have been at St. Thomas, I have come to discover I was a bit mistaken.
In Tommie history, and in the Joseph B. Connors’ book Journey Toward Fulfillment: A History of the College of St. Thomas, Grace and Ireland are two very important bishops. Thomas Grace was the second of his rank in the diocese. (The first was Joseph Cretin … sound familiar, Cretin Hall?) Grace actually ordained John Ireland, an Irish immigrant (who would have guessed?), to the priesthood and influenced him greatly as a friend and mentor. Grace served for 25 years before turning his role over to Ireland, an integral player in the saga of William Finn’s finger.
Finn was an illiterate Irish immigrant. He served guard duty in the Mexican-American War as an infantryman at Fort Snelling. After months of service and on one of the hottest days on record, July 9, 1847, he carelessly unloaded his musket, blowing off his forefinger. He was honorably discharged because of his disability and, under the Mexican Veteran Pension Law, given 160 acres of land on which to settle. He married a young widow, Elizabeth Reynolds, and they settled on their newly acquired property, which eventually expanded to a square mile. This square mile in itself is special; it is the one on which the St. Thomas is located today. In fact, when workers were preparing to build St. Mary’s Chapel (part of the St. Paul Seminary) in 1918, they came across the old foundation of the Finn farmhouse.
The Finns met “Father” Ireland. They developed a deep respect for him and, though illiterate, were caught up in Ireland’s vision to build a Catholic seminary. They sold the land to “Bishop” Ireland in 1880 for a mere $500 annuity during William’s life. Upon his death in 1889, Finn left all his land to Ireland, by then an archbishop, and made him the executor of his will. A decade later, Elizabeth was laid to rest beside her husband.
When I first heard this story from my COJO professor, Dr. John Cragan, I found it incredible. St. Thomas, as we know it, would not be here – or at least, not at this location – if not for Finn’s index finger!
Because of this, Dr. Cragan suggests that St. Thomas students should do two things:
- Rally for the placement of a statue of Finn’s finger protruding from the ground next to the statue of John Ireland facing the Arches.
- Perform the “Faithful Finn Finger Waggle” when we graduate. (Point your index finger up and shake your hand back and forth.)
I know I am completely on board with one of these tributes to Finn. As to which one, time will tell!