In 1987, Gary Byrne, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for San Benito County, stepped onto a plane in Dublin, Ireland; a plane that would take him to the New World and a new life.
Byrne spoke with BenitoLink about his life growing up in Ireland and his love of San Benito County. He and this reporter grew up about 12 miles apart in Ireland and came to California in 1987.
“I could have gone anywhere, but chose to go to America,” he said. “I love San Benito County. I love the ruralness of it.”
Byrne was a priest in the Roman Catholic Church when he left Ireland. When given the choice to work in a church in the United States, he said he could have gone to a diocese in New York or Boston. But he wanted to move somewhere not immersed in Irish culture. He wanted to learn about other cultures and peoples.
Instead of the East Coast, Bryne chose the Diocese of Monterey. He researched and decided on that diocese because of its diversity and the lay of the land.
He started working at Immaculate Conception Parish in Tres Pinos and then Sacred Heart Parish. With Sacred Heart, Bryne was instrumental in helping to build St. Benedict Catholic Church on Fairview Road, turning the parish into Sacred Heart & St. Benedict Parish.
After 13 years in the priesthood, he left the church in 2000.
“I always wanted to get married and have a family. That was my dream,” Bryne said.
He then went to work for the Los Gatos/Saratoga High School District and helped with an $80 million dollar renovation; the district had heard he helped build a church and felt he would be the right person for the job.
A year passed and a friend asked him to join the Community Foundation for San Benito County, which contributes some funding to BenitoLink. He said he was hesitant because of his prior work in Hollister, and thought it might be strange after having been so personally involved in people’s lives, funerals, weddings and religious events. But he came back, and is glad he did.
Byrne said he’s been asked many times to go to schools and events on St. Patrick’s Day to talk about St. Patrick and Irish culture. Telling people that St. Patrick wasn’t Irish “always gets the biggest response,” he said. That’s usually followed by a surprised “what?”
Byrne was one of five children, small by Irish standards in the 1960s. He said his mother, like most Irish mothers, ran the household, and was strong and loving. He spoke of Irish philanthropy and kindness. He said he believes the Irish respond to others’ needs because of the Great Famine in the mid-1800s and the devastating effects it had on Ireland.
For many years, Bryne spent time in Dublin’s inner city working with the disadvantaged. He said he loves to visit the area when he returns on vacation. He recalled a time when he asked locals for some chairs for a community center. The next day, several chairs appeared outside the building. But there was a slight problem: the chairs were from the Guinness Brewery cafeteria, and following a call to Guinness it was determined they weren’t the ones who left them there. The chairs were returned, but the brewery then made a donation to buy chairs for the community center. The community center was also offered leather jackets that had not been acquired with payment. He felt the chair incident was a Robin Hood move, and that it was done to help the poor.
Byrne has returned home to Dublin every year, with the exception of last year because of the pandemic. He doubts he will get back this year either, but as soon as he can, he intends to step on a plane for a short visit to the old country and to family.
Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona! (Happy St. Patrick’s Day)
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