Book Remembers Father Dan Begin's Quest To Bridge Divisions
In a time of crisis, when so many have staked entrenched positions, a new book profiles a popular Cleveland priest who tried to bridge the divide.
Towards the end of a traditional Catholic mass, parishioners turn to each other and offer a handshake, a sign of peace and good will. But, when the late Dan Begin was in the pulpit at St. Cecilia, on Cleveland’s southeast side, that handshake blossomed into full-on hugs and conversations.
“For some of these people, the sign of peace hug is only time they will be touched all week long,” Begin said in a 2010 interview.
He added that human contact was a big part of his ministries at both St. Cecilia’s and Epiphany, two predominantly African-American parishes in the city’s hard-hit Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. Due to a lack of priests in the Cleveland Diocese, Begin, who was white, was pastor at both churches. But skin color and economic circumstances didn’t define how he saw you, according to parishioner Barbara Owens.
“Father Dan looked at people as gifts of God,” she said.
Dan Begin not only touched individuals, he reached out to his community through hunger programs, day care and mentoring young people. Soon after joining Epiphany, Owens sent her son to a weekend retreat for boys, sponsored by the church.
“I'm going to say that Derek was maybe 10 to 12,” she said. “He went to the retreat … and in his words, he said, ‘Father Dan is the coolest priest ever.’ And one of the things I think that impressed him was how Father Dan was like everybody else. Yes, he was a priest, but he was approachable.”
Like Begin, Derek Owens grew up to have a strong commitment to his community - so much so that he joined the Cleveland Police Department. His family was concerned about Derek’s safety, but respected his devotion to duty. In 2008, Derek Owens was shot and killed while chasing four suspects on foot in Mt. Pleasant.
“Father Dan was the first person who I talked to outside of my family the morning after Derek's death,” Barbara Owens said, noting that Begin had stayed with them for hours the previous night at the hospital, listening and consoling. “He had the words to give to us when we needed them.”
Owens said Derek had that same urge to help people. “My son wanted to make a difference.”
And that desire was nurtured in a couple Cleveland churches where making a difference overshadowed the differences among people. Writer Kathy Ewing was part of a group of white suburbanites who found their spiritual home in the inner city parish of St. Cecilia.
“You know, the word diversity is pretty tired, but it definitely applied to St. Cecilia,” she said. “There were people who were poor, and there were doctors and lawyers and lots of educators and middle class people.”
Actor and social activist Martin Sheen paid a visit to Cleveland and stayed in St. Cecilia's rectory [Kathy Ewing]
The Diocese closed St. Cecilia in 2010 in a downsizing move. Epiphany had been closed a year earlier. Dan Begin and his flocks moved on to other churches, but remained in touch through occasional spiritual meetings that the pastor dubbed “Scattered Seed.” Dan Begin succumbed to cancer in 2017.
Kathy Ewing recently published, “Lead Me, Guide Me: The Life and Example of Father Dan Begin.” The book’s cover features the smiling priest proudly displaying a T-shirt with the Latin phrase, “Carpe Diem” or “seize the day.”
Dan Begin believed in living for the present moment [Kathy Ewing]
“He preached all the time that what we have is the present moment,” she said. “We don't know if we're going to survive the next five minutes. We have no control really over what happens to us. And the past is behind us. But we have the present moment. And he lived that way. And he taught that constantly.”
It’s not likely that many people will be embracing at the end of a church service anytime soon, if ever again. But, Ewing thinks Begin will continue to touch people by the seeds he scattered throughout his spiritual journey.
Mayor Stan Koci with Dan Begin at his last pastoral post at St. Mary's in Bedford [Kathy Ewing]