Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Msgr. Donovan Marks 60th Anniversary Of Ordination

By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published July 22, 2004

When Tony Totis and his family emigrated from Italy to Georgia in 1951, Msgr. Walter Donovan was just a young priest with a big heart.

He was there to greet the family when they arrived and he brought them to Athens, where he was serving as pastor of St. Joseph’s Church.

They were strangers in a new country, but Msgr. Donovan instantly made them feel at home.

“We stayed with him in the rectory and he gave up his room for us and slept on the couch,” Totis recalled.

Totis and his family lived with Msgr. Donovan, who to this day is a close friend.

“He married all of the children; he buried our parents,” he said. “We owe so much to him.”

Totis was just one of the hundreds who gathered at Sacred Heart Church, Atlanta, on June 27 to celebrate Msgr. Donovan’s 60th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood.

Several priests concelebrated the Mass along with Msgr. Donovan who served as the main celebrant.

Msgr. Frank Giusta, pastor of Sacred Heart, was the homilist for the Mass, and he began by thanking Msgr. Donovan for giving him the honor to preach at his anniversary Mass. Everyone, he said, has a mission “to belong to the kingdom of God.”

“Priests do have a mission and we have an extremely enjoyable task because we are witnessing miracles all the time,” he said. “Msgr. Donovan has been involved in performing miracles for 60 years.”

Priests are the means through which God works some of his miracles, Msgr. Giusta said.

“It really is an enormously privileged position we have because we are tools in the hands of God,” he said. “We are grateful to God that he has given us priests. And we are especially grateful that he has given us Msgr. Donovan for such a long time.”

The retired priest, 88, takes good care of himself, Msgr. Giusta said, and is always willing to help in any way he can.

“He is a great example to me. I can only wish that when I reach his age, if I do, I’ll be exactly like him,” he said. “He is positive and smiles all the time and is always pleasant to be with.”

Msgr. Donovan, who is in residence at Sacred Heart, is also a blessing to the parish, the pastor said.

“As a parish we should be grateful to him—and I’m sure you are. Many of you have told me how happy you are that Msgr. Donovan is here and so am I,” he said. “So we thank Msgr. Donovan for his commitment to the choice he made many, many years ago.”

The parish responded with a rousing standing ovation for Msgr. Donovan, who humbly stood and waved to the congregation.

At the end of Mass, Msgr. Donovan, who is visually impaired, thanked everyone for coming, and especially expressed his appreciation to the many people who take him to the doctor and around town, making it “possible for me to survive.”

He also told the story of one of his last Masses at St. Thomas More Church in Decatur, where he served as pastor for 10 years from 1971-81. He told the lector at the Mass that he had been transferred to Good Shepherd Church in Cumming and asked the lector to tell the congregation.

“So he said, ‘Msgr. Donovan has been transferred. Now, please join us for our opening hymn ‘Now Thank We All our God,’’” he said, laughing with the congregation at the memory.

Msgr. Donovan began his ministry as a priest, after his ordination on July 1, 1944, serving in the Diocese of Savannah. His first assignment in Atlanta in 1948 was as pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Athens, where he served for 13 years.

A pioneer for the Catholic Church in North Georgia, Msgr. Donovan said that he enjoyed his early days as a priest.

“I found that you could discover Catholics in the most interesting places. In every little town there would be at least one or two Catholics,” he said. “It was interesting to be a part of the early growth of the church in Georgia.”

During his time at St. Joseph’s, he founded St. Joseph’s School. He remembers the difficult task of telling the families that they would have to be charged for Catholic education.

“I said, ‘We have to charge something, maybe $5 a month, just to pay the teachers,’” he said. “But I told them that if they couldn’t pay it, they didn’t have to. We wanted the children there anyway.”

He also helped to found the Catholic Center at the University of Georgia, by negotiating the purchase of a house that is still used today. Back then, he remembers, there were about 400 or 500 Catholic students. Today, the Catholic Center at UGA serves more than 1,500 students.

While in Athens, he also served as the resettlement director for the many immigrants, like the Totis family.

Msgr. Donovan served as pastor of Good Shepherd Church until 1988, when his diabetes began to affect his eyesight and he decided to retire.

Now retired and in residence at Sacred Heart, Msgr. Donovan looks back on his years of priesthood without regret. A native of Little Falls, N.Y., he came to the South so that he could be active in ministering to the people.

“(Coming to the South) it was good to get to know people better,” he said. “At that time there were plenty of priests in the North, and they were fine men, but they didn’t get out much. I wanted to minister to the families.”

Last year, as a tribute to the priest who had done so much for the Catholics in their area, Msgr. Donovan Catholic High School, an independent Catholic school, was opened in Athens by lay people.

Scott Fleming, principal of the high school, said that Msgr. Donovan is an example to all.

“Our motto at Msgr. Donovan is ‘to radiate the Lord,’” he said. “Just hearing Msgr. Donovan speak at the end of Mass today, you know that he doesn’t have to say much, but you can just feel the Lord radiating from him.”

Totis feels the same way about the priest who means so much to his family.

“I have lunch with him every week. He means so much to us,” he said. “In reality, we’re here because of all he’s done.”