Catholic Charities Report
Deacon Dick Shannon: Celebrating 50 years of Service
By Gary Bouchard
Deacon Dick Shannon’s long life of service to the marginalized and disadvantaged people of New Hampshire has much to teach us about the meaning of vocation, including one of the oldest lessons from Jesus’ first miracle at Cana: mother knows best.
1961 was a good time to be a Catholic. A young Catholic President was in the White House and, ahead of the Second Vatican Council, the Church in New Hampshire was still experiencing a post-war boom. At Bishop Bradley High School on Manchester’s east side, 16 priests taught on the faculty, assisting the many Christian Brothers who ran the school. It was only natural in such a world that the devout young Dick Shannon, graduating from Bradley that year, was sure he was called to join the Christian Brothers.
Dick’s mother was less certain. When he brought her the consent form that would give him permission to join the Christian Brothers, she did some discerning of her own, and left the line for her signature blank.
This was a woman who had been raised Lutheran and converted to Catholicism. She taught her children to behold divine glory in the beautiful colors of stained glass windows, to see God’s beauty in each rich and varied pane of glass. Her vision was broader and more far-reaching than that of her idealistic young son. “If you truly have a vocation,” she resolved, “you won’t lose it by waiting awhile.” She told him he needed to mature a little and encouraged him to go to college. Then another plan emerged: a life in Palm Beach in the family hospitality business.
So Dick, who had become accustomed to serving Manchester’s poor during his years at Bishop Bradley, now Trinity High School, spent his first year after high school in the service of the rich — the very rich. His uncle was the manager of the famous Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, and the family envisioned a prosperous future for Dick under his uncle’s tutelage.
For the wide-eyed boy from Manchester, life at The Breakers would make for an exotic and ultimately life-changing year. The fragments of memory he describes today seem iconic: serving meals to Rose Kennedy, driving down to Key West at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis because his uncle wanted “to get close to the action,” going to confession at the church in Palm Beach and seeing Jacqueline Kennedy in the line before him, wondering what she could possibly have to confess, chasing down the wind-tossed hat of the president of Proctor and Gamble, only to have the prominent businessman take a shine to him and offer to pay his way for four years at Quincy College in Illinois.
This was the brave new world of Palm Beach in the early ‘60’s, and Dick’s uncle even envisioned a new restaurant called Shannon’s that his nephew could ultimately manage. What a life that might have been!
If not for a small bridge.
When Dick wasn’t on duty at The Breakers, he would walk across a nearby footbridge into West Palm Beach to play basketball. No clinking of fancy glassware over there, where the population was mostly African American, and mostly poor. The stark disparity between the two worlds on either side of that footbridge jolted Dick. More than ever, he felt called to serve the poor. While he may not have been certain of his vocation at that time, he knew his future was not in the family business. His resolve to serve those who were struggling the most brought him back to Manchester. “I went where I felt most at home, where the Lord was calling me,” he recalls.
Back in Manchester, Dick enrolled at Saint Anselm College and then switched to pursue a degree in education at Keene State. He volunteered at the Boys Club, became president of the Newman Catholic Student Association at Keene and, try though he may to deny it, fell increasingly in love with a young woman, Fleurette, whom he had known since high school.
All the while Dick continued trying to discern the Lord’s call and the vocation his mother deferred, assuring him it would still be there. The vocation, of course, was right by his side and has been for 58 years now – Fleurette. And the Lord’s call? That would come in the aisles of Ferretti’s Supermarket in Manchester where Dick worked during college. There he came to know a regular customer named Dick Kelly, who had become the Director of Social Services at Catholic Charities. The grocery aisle conversations between these two devout Catholics eventually led to Mr. Kelly offering Dick a position as a social worker at Catholic Charities.
All of that was 50 short years ago – making this summer a trifecta of golden jubilees: Dick’s 50th college class reunion at Keene State, his and Fleurette’s 50th wedding anniversary, and Dick’s 50th anniversary as an employee of Catholic Charities New Hampshire.
The wide-ranging and impactful work that Dick has accomplished at Catholic Charities over five decades far surpasses what could be contained in these pages. He began when CCNH had about a dozen employees and no district offices. Back then, he drove all over New Hampshire responding to those in need. He earned his Master’s in Social Work from Boston College and has served Catholic Charities in a wide variety of ways: responding wherever and whenever he has been asked to help, sitting on too many boards and committees to mention, helping to found New Horizons Soup Kitchen out of a Winnebago in the early 1970's, and ultimately overseeing CCNH’s 10 Parish & Community Services outreach coordinators throughout the state. In the wake of the Church sex abuse crisis, he helped oversee the effort that led to 32,000 people being trained in child protection.
Marc S. Cousineau, Director of Parish and Community Services at CCNH, reflects that “Dick’s passion for the poor, Catholic social teaching and translating that into programs that help people in need, or sensitize others to their plight, greatly influenced Catholic Charities here in New Hampshire and nationally through Catholic Charities USA … His heart, mind and hands were always about service.”
Sixteen years ago, with the loving support of Fleurette and his family, Dick was ordained as a permanent deacon and has served the parishioners of the Parish of the Transfiguration on Manchester’s West Side ever since. “My mother was right after all,” he smiles. As for the need for vocations, Deacon Shannon says, “I don’t think we have a vocation crisis. I think we are distributing vocations differently today than in the past, and that we need to work to cultivate lay vocations. The Church needs to move from being a maintenance Church where people come for their sacraments, to being pro-active, reaching out to the neighborhoods, the highways and byways, to the folks in the community who are suffering.”
The highways and byways of New Hampshire that we all travel conceal the places and people in need, the places where Dick has spent his life stopping to lend a hand. Today, besides his work with families in his parish, he serves as the Director of Pastoral Care at the Bishop Peterson Residence for retired priests. As for his own retirement, Dick brushes the idea aside, thinking instead of the remarkable people he has been fortunate to work with and to serve through Catholic Charities and of his active work as a deacon. “I intend to serve until my last breath” he says, “Or until they take the keys away from me.”
So it seems that one can anticipate even more milestones and anniversaries ahead in Deacon Shannon’s long journey of service that began with the crossing of a small footbridge 56 years ago and led to places that perhaps only his mother could have envisioned.