Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Priest Provides Spiritual Home For Tech Students

By ERIKA ANDERSON-Staff Writer | Published February 16, 2006

He has been moved to tears so often that his students once gave him a giant box of tissues as a gift. His office is a tidy, organized display of religious objects, which seamlessly mingle with “yellow jacket” paraphernalia. And even after nearly 35 years as the campus minister of the Catholic Center at Georgia Tech, Father Mario DiLella, OFM, still considers himself the luckiest priest in the world.

Last November, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated a Mass in honor of the Catholic Center’s 20th anniversary, but for Father Mario, it’s hard to imagine that much time has passed.

When the Franciscan priest first arrived at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the early 1970s, Masses and other ministry functions were being held in a tiny house on campus. Having served in parishes, Father Mario was new to the ministry to college students

“I remember very graphically my first impression here. I thought, ‘What do I do now? I am lost,’” Father Mario said.

With the ministry contained in the small house, only weekday Masses were available there in the constricted space. Weekend Masses were celebrated in different campus buildings, such as the Student Center Theater or Ballroom, the YMCA, the Wesley Foundation and the Presbyterian Center.

Looking around the expansive Catholic Center of today, Father Mario shakes his head.

“Fifteen years. I don’t know how we did it,” he said.

In 1980 a committee of students was formed to write a letter of “justification” to the archdiocese in which they stated the dire need for a new Catholic Center building. Their request was reviewed and ultimately approved by the building committee. After meeting with several architectural firms, the committee decided on the firm of Hughes and Durfee Architects who were professors at Georgia Tech. After submitting several different proposals, they finally settled on the present design. The builders were BCB Construction Company, who completed the structure in about nine months.

The ministry moved into the new Catholic Center building, which sits on Fourth Street in the middle of the Tech Campus, in September of 1985, and Archbishop Thomas Donnellan dedicated the new building on Oct. 20, 1985.

“It was a great day. There were a million people here,” Father Mario remembers.

The building has three levels. The lower level contains the recreation room, which beckons students to blow off steam with a pool and foosball table, a study room and bathrooms. The main level contains what is known as the “Great Room,” where Masses are held and which seats up to 300 people. There is also a kitchen and storage rooms as well as a Blessed Sacrament chapel, TV lounge, bathrooms and Father Mario’s office on this level, plus the secretary’s office and a conference room. Father Mario’s apartment is on the third floor.

But the most important part of the building for Father Mario is the amount of space it gives him to minister to the students. Each weekend, he offers four Masses as well as daily Mass every day but Wednesday. In addition, Bible studies, dinners, rosary gatherings and adoration round out the solid ministry at the Center. Catholicism is the dominant denomination on campus, with over 1,800 students indicating Catholicism as their religion.

“These are my kids. I love them, and they know that. I never miss an opportunity to tell them that I love them,” Father Mario said. “This is their home, and I’m their father here, and I truly believe that.”

The students believe that too, and though the campus minister remains ever humble, it’s clear that he is making a difference in the lives of many. Over 20 men from the Catholic Center have been ordained to the priesthood.

Father Kevin Hargaden, parochial vicar at St. Lawrence Church in Lawrenceville, attended Georgia Tech from 1990-1994. For two years he served as the president of the Catholic Center.

“You could say I was involved there,” he joked. “I had keys to the place.”

A Milledgeville native, Father Hargaden embraced his time at the Catholic Center.

“It was a wonderful little home away from home. You could study there. You could pray there. You could goof off and be social there,” he said. “While I was there, there was a whole crew of us who were discerning the priesthood.”

Father Mario vested Father Hargaden when he was ordained to the priesthood in 1999.

“(Father Mario) is the perfect blend of a holy man and a ‘goofy’ guy. He’s so real and speaks the truth of our faith but also knows what Tech students are going through, whether academic stresses or homesickness. He always believes in everybody, and he creates an atmosphere that is just comfortable,” Father Hargaden said. “Everyone is made to feel welcome. It doesn’t matter their religious affiliation. Someone who is agnostic or an atheist would have been just as welcomed as I was as a cradle Catholic.”

Chris Wieczorek, a Tech alumnus now attending Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said he chose to attend Georgia Tech, in large part because of Father Mario. A native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Wieczorek met Father Mario while visiting his older brother, who also attended Tech.

“It was Father Mario’s energy that really impressed me. He definitely made you feel welcome,” he said.

Wieczorek served as the president of the Catholic Center and was also the resident student, a student who earns a room at the Center by attending to the daily upkeep.

“(The Catholic Center) provides some sort of grounding and allows you to build real relationships. There are always temptations when attending a university, so it’s good to have good friends and a good minister. I made it into the center of my day. Next to school work, the Catholic Center was the most important thing about Georgia Tech for me.”

The Catholic Center is also important to Gracy Wingkono, a doctoral student from Indonesia.

“Being alone with no relatives or family when I came to the United States, and it was the first time I went outside my native South East Asia region, I felt the need to find a good home. And I felt so happy that Georgia Tech has its own Catholic Church, so I started going,” she said. “I made friends there, especially with Father Mario who has been very fatherly to all Tech students and always makes us feel at home. The homey feeling is both the activities and traditions that are being kept alive and the simple real feeling from Father Mario’s laughs, greetings, handshakes, or hugs that make a bad day feel OK or a regular day feel magnificent at the end of the day.”

Though the students are quick to give Father Mario credit, the priest is just as quick to turn it back to them. The community, he said, is one built on the “solid foundation of prayer,” he said, both communal and solitary. But, he laughs, it’s also a “sign-up sheet community,” indicating the many sign-up sheets placed throughout the center, asking for involvement from students for everything from Eucharistic ministers to setting up for meals.

“The kids do everything, and they free me to be the priest,” Father Mario said. “I say this all the time. I am the only priest here. But I’m not the only minister.”