By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published February 4, 2004
Raised in a Methodist Church in Athens, Msgr. John Columbus Kirk went on to become a Catholic priest and then a member of the Vatican’s Diplomatic Corps in Bucharest, Romania, during its harsh, post-war communist takeover until being expelled from that country on false charges of espionage.
Msgr. Kirk died on Jan. 12 at the age of 92. The son of Emory and Pearl Richards Kirk, he was born and raised in Athens. He received his bachelor of arts degree from St. Mary’s University, Baltimore, Md., majoring in philosophy with a minor in the classics. He completed additional studies at St. Charles College, Catonsville, Md., the University of Georgia and the University of South Carolina. After working for the Vatican in Europe, he moved back to Atlanta in the late 1960s and back to Athens in the early 1980s.
Father Jack McDowell, campus chaplain for the Catholic Center at the University of Georgia, got to know the retired priest in recent years. He used to attend Mass at the Catholic Center and occasionally taught religious education there, and later was brought Communion by parishioners in the assisted living home to which he moved. “He was a sharp cookie, a real sharp mind. Even at the end there he had a good head on his shoulders,” he said.
But more than that, he was impressed by his humility. “He lived a very simple life for somebody who lived what one would say was a privileged life. Everything was very simple about him. He was very caring. He ministered to all kinds of people … He used to go visit the people, Catholic and non-Catholic,” he continued. “Even to the end he was saying prayers with others, comforting others, just acts of kindness, living a simple lifestyle. This is a man who had been rubbing shoulders with powerful people.”
Msgr. Kirk was the first priest ordained at St. Joseph’s Church in Athens in 1944. He began his service for the church as secretary to the late Archbishop Gerald P. O’Hara, and together they were called by Pope Pius XII in May 1946, destined originally for Albania as the pope’s representatives, but because of persecution of the church there the appointment was changed to Romania. Msgr. Kirk was raised to the rank of papal chamberlain with the title very reverend monsignor immediately after going to Rome in 1946. He was a member of the papal household of Pope Pius XII. He was later elevated to the dignity of domestic prelate and was made a member of the church’s hierarchy by the same pope. He was a personal friend of Pope Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI. Msgr. Kirk was fluent in French, Spanish, Italian and Latin. He gave English lessons to Archbishop Angelo Giuseppe Roncolli who later became Pope John XXIII.
Msgr. Kirk was a Vatican diplomat and one of the first American ecclesiastics ever called to serve in the Vatican’s Diplomatic Service, which he did in Romania at a critical time following World War II. It was then when Moscow took over its government, which resulted in the arrest of priests and Religious and the silencing of the church numbering three million members. Diplomatic relations with the Vatican were broken and protestors were tortured or killed. Msgr. Kirk was arrested several times before being expelled in 1950 on trumped up charges by the communist government. Archbishop O’Hara had told The New York Times that seven of them had been declared guilty in a nine-day trial, and that the two defendants testifying against them had been tortured for seven months before making accusations.
Communists went on to control Romania until 1996. “The church was driven underground. Priests in prison said Mass in secret lying on their backs, using their chests as an altar and a water glass as a chalice … We prepared for the perpetuation of the priesthood, both for Oriental and Latin Rites, by ordaining priests and consecrating bishops secretly in the darkness of night in our small nunciature chapel,” he wrote in 1989.
Returning to Rome, Msgr. Kirk was put in charge of close to 300,000 Romanians in exile. He worked primarily in Western Europe. He also wrote of a memorable Eucharistic Congress in Barcelona where “I was privileged to represent the silent and suffering church in Romania … My heart is full of love for my Romanian people with whom I never failed to identify in their exile and in their fight for freedom.”
After returning to Athens around 1982, Msgr. Kirk said in an interview that he had constant contact with peasant and king alike, as well as heads of government with whom he worked in providing assistance for his refugee groups. At one time he kept an official residence in Madrid where so many “broken-down” royalty had fled, including King Umberto, last of the Italian monarchs. He spoke of his desire in Athens to be low-key and private, helping “behind the scenes” and following Dickens’ injunction to “Do all the good you can—and don’t make a fuss over it.”
His niece, Joan Riddling, said he was the only Catholic in their Methodist family and that he once told her that he became interested in the faith after making Catholic friends in college and attending Mass with them. “He was always traveling” when she was growing up, but would come home to visit his parents.
She looked after him for 12 years after his return to Athens, where she recalled him telling stories of trying to save nuns being persecuted in Romania. “I remember him saying he was on board a ship one time and people were trying to kill them because they were trying to rescue the nuns … (and that) ‘we were scared to death.’”
Riddling got to experience his amicable nature and pastoral side. She recalled his popularity at the assisted living home where he lived for four years, and how he would give items of clothing and other things away and would bless the unborn child daily of the administrator, who would always come up and hug him. He also gave away a class ring to one of his cousin’s sons. In the home “one man in a wheelchair, he would say, ‘all right preacher, you haven’t blessed me today.’ They all loved him,” she said. “He meant a lot to us; we’ll miss him greatly.”
She recalled one man at the home who was like a brother to him. “When the friend died, he cried and cried and cried,” she continued. “He was a very caring person and he wanted to do anything he could for anybody. He always wanted to do for others. His mother was that way … He was just raised in that atmosphere … He always looked after his parents. He made sure they didn’t need anything.”
He is survived by nine nieces and two nephews. The funeral Mass was celebrated at the University of Georgia Catholic Center on Jan. 15. Interment followed at Oconee Hill Cemetery.