By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special Contributor | Published September 28, 2006
The spread of Catholicism in Georgia is a fascinating story. This year the Archdiocese of Atlanta marks the 50th anniversary of its establishment as a diocese in 1956 by Pope Pius XII. (Not until 1962 would the Diocese of Atlanta be elevated to become the Archdiocese of Atlanta.) Four priests remain who were present to witness the formation of the Diocese of Atlanta: Msgr. Walter J. Donovan, Msgr. R. Donald Kiernan, Father James L. Harrison and Father Richard B. Morrow. What follows are some of their memories and observations of the archdiocese that they have faithfully served for over 50 and 60 years.
Msgr. Walter J. Donovan
A true pioneer for the Catholic Church as well as for civil rights in North Georgia is Msgr. Walter J. Donovan who has ministered to missions and parishes throughout Georgia.
As a student at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., he heard a presentation by Msgr. Patrick J. O’Connor who was recruiting men to be priests to serve in the mission state of Georgia. The enthusiastic priest was the first to ask the young Donovan, who had been taught by many priests during his earlier school years, if he had ever considered becoming a priest.
At the age of 24 and after graduating from Catholic University, he entered St. Bernard’s Seminary and was ordained in 1944. He spent his first years as a priest in the Savannah area and then was assigned to Dublin, Ga., as pastor of Immaculate Conception Church.
In Dublin and later in Athens, his parishes covered 10 counties and he often ventured out into the rural areas to celebrate Mass for small groups of Catholics. The small number increased somewhat when soldiers brought home Catholic wives from Italy and England following World War II.
“There were about 50 families spread out, and the offertory on Sunday was about $15 to $20,” he recalled. “Everything was in Latin.”
Some families were only able to attend Mass once a month when a priest visited. “The rest of the Sundays the women would say the rosary with their families and teach the catechism.”
He credits these women with sustaining and aiding in the establishment of the church.
“There were itinerant priests, but in all the regions of Georgia, there were a couple of stalwart women who would teach the catechism—that was true of Elberton, Hartwell, Monroe, Madison. These women organized everything and got things going.”
His first assignment in North Georgia took him to St. Joseph Church in Athens where he remained as pastor for 13 years, and during which time the Diocese of Atlanta came into existence.
Former congregants also included a handful of faithful Bohemian families, descendants of immigrants from Czechoslovakia who had settled in Hart County. Despite the isolated pockets of Catholics, “most hung in there, even though they didn’t get to church every Sunday.”
Early on, Mass in rural areas was often celebrated in Catholic homes, and one story that Msgr. Donovan likes to recount is of how St. Mary Church in Elberton came to be. In the 1930s, before his time in the area, an Italian stonecutter died while working in the local granite quarry without a priest to minister to him. Saddened by this, a woman sent a penny postcard, written in Italian, to the Vatican, which is said to have caught the attention of the pope. The question came from Rome to the bishop of Savannah, “What are you doing for Catholics in Georgia?” and sometime later, an anonymous donor funded the construction of the small stone church.
While in Athens, Msgr. Donovan directed efforts to resettle over 150 families from central Europe, the Ukraine and Russia who had been displaced during World War II.
One of the stipulations for coming to America was that the new immigrants needed to have jobs waiting. Often upon their arrival the intended position was no longer open. Still, the rectory was large enough to accommodate newly arriving families for a time.
“Never was anyone on welfare,” said Msgr. Donovan, adding that jobs abounded. In the mid-1950s poultry and dairy industries came to the Athens area, also bringing new Catholic families with them. Some stayed while others moved on.
Currently in residence at St. George Village in Roswell, Msgr. Donovan recalled the story of a devout Catholic and war veteran who was African-American. After he passed away the man’s wife arranged for his funeral in the Methodist church which she attended because none of her friends would go into a Catholic church. At first the priest thought he could do nothing about the situation until another African-American parishioner told him, “‘You could do more. You can go to his funeral.’”
So he attended the man’s funeral at the Methodist church and at the appropriate time explained to those gathered why the practicing Catholic had not been buried from his home parish.
“It was very difficult for a black person to join a white church. They’d lose friends,” Msgr. Donovan said.
After serving in Athens, Msgr. Donovan went on to be the founding pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in southwest Atlanta for 11 years and, in 1971, became pastor at St. Thomas More Church in Decatur.
To help pave the way for racial integration, Msgr. Donovan participated in an interracial group of Catholics called the St. Martin’s Human Relations Council, which visited parishes “educating other Catholics” on the issues involving civil rights.
“If you were Catholic-born and reared in the South, you were infected with the Southern attitude,” he said. “It took people time to adjust.”
Bishop Francis E. Hyland, known as a thoughtful and gentle man, was the first bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta.
“Bishop Hyland was a timid fellow, but he did his best to make Catholics aware that segregation was wrong.”
The bishop, who served the diocese for five years before retiring for health reasons, supported the establishment of Atlanta’s second African-American church run by the Passionist order. At the time, churches were segregated.
“It wasn’t done to segregate but to reach out,” Msgr. Donovan said. “If it were (the bishop’s) way, there would be no problem (integrated churches) but in the meantime he waited for the change to occur in Atlanta. ”
Msgr. Donovan credited the Passionist order and other orders such as the religious sisters who helped to establish and run hospitals and schools with helping to minister to what became a large number of people moving into the area as well as converts to Catholicism.
“When I came in 1944, there were not 44,000 Catholics in Georgia. I was the 30th diocesan priest.”
Today there are approximately 368,000 Catholics in 75 parishes and 20 missions in the Atlanta Archdiocese alone.
“It’s been a time of great growth.”
Msgr. R. Donald Kiernan
As a young priest, Msgr. R. Donald Kiernan was often in the right place at the right time to get in on things. He recalled the day riding out from the Cathedral of Christ the King when he was told, “Don’t say anything, but we’re splitting up the diocese.”
He was the third person locally to know about efforts to establish a separate diocese, behind the likes of Msgr. Joseph E. Moylan, he said. The official announcement was made in July followed by the actual installation of Bishop Francis E. Hyland.
“I remember it was a beautiful day.”
As a parish priest, as vicar general, as editor of The Georgia Bulletin, as a law enforcement chaplain, as a Scout leader, Msgr. Kiernan, with humor and warmth, has served as an ambassador for the Catholic Church in many arenas. He is still an active pastor at all Saints Church, Dunwoody.
The native of Taunton, Mass., and alumnus of Providence College admitted though that coming south initially took some getting used to.
“I had never tasted real heat,” he said. “I thought it was the end of the world.”
Msgr. Kiernan arrived in Savannah after putting himself through Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. Realizing that there were plenty of priests up north, he caught the missionary bug passed on to him by Msgr. Patrick J. O’Connor of the Savannah-Atlanta Diocese.
“The challenge was to attract priests to the area,” Msgr. Kiernan recalled, considering what his fate might be if he remained in his hometown. “Did I want to be the fourth assistant for 10 years, and then the third assistant for another 10 in a parish? Georgia was the Savannah-Atlanta Diocese then and considered ripe for mission work. There were a lot of exciting challenges for every priest in those days. We felt we were really part of building up the church.”
Two years after his first assignment at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, he was sent to assist at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta.
As a young priest at the Shrine and close to the hub of the city’s political life in the 1950s, he relayed stories regarding Atlanta’s broader community.
“There were a lot of good leaders,” he said. “It was a creative climate.”
For instance, good friend police chief Herbert T. Jenkins was a legend among the police force and one whose presence helped to usher in a new era of civil rights for African-Americans in the city. The police chief launched an overhaul of the police force that included putting the first African-American police officers on the street. Msgr. Kiernan recalled that when differences flared up between officers the police chief would have them write essays on racism.
“He was doing all the things needed to bring the climate around for when integration would come.”
The monsignor, too, is a well-known fixture among the police force, having served as a chaplain for well over 50 years, earning him the nickname “colonel” among the law enforcement officers.
City officials would come in through the rectory’s back door from City Hall for lunch to discuss issues such as the Hill-Burton Act of 1946, which awarded federal funds to hospitals that took in anyone needing assistance no matter one’s race, color or creed.
“They’d walk in the back door and tell the maid to put more water in the soup pot.”
One frequent visitor for lunch was Mayor William Hartsfield, a Baptist, who would talk with the Shrine’s pastor, then Father James O’Grady.
“I was a young priest and kept my mouth shut and listened.”
He recalled the mayor’s words to Father O’Grady: “‘Jim, one day there’s going to be a road around the city without a single traffic light.’”
The mayor also saw the growth of Atlanta connected to air travel and a sufficient water supply, which eventually was addressed with the development of Lake Lanier.
Msgr. Kiernan shared how the mayor also helped with finding the location of St. Paul of the Cross, a parish established to reach out to African-Americans.
Atlanta was becoming “cosmopolitan,” the monsignor said.
“Bigotry happened,” said Msgr. Kiernan, pointing to the 1928 presidential race between Democrat Al Smith, a devout Catholic, and Republican Herbert Hoover. (Fears rose over Smith’s loyalty to the pope as a Catholic and that he might shun the Constitution.)
“With John Kennedy, when he ran there was a lot of interest (in Catholicism)—not approval, but interest.”
“The truth of the matter was that us Catholics, we did not present a challenge because there were so few of us.”
He recounted that he knew of only a few disturbances directed toward Catholics.
“I was treated really well and was friendly with a few ministers,” said the monsignor, who was the first priest asked to give the invocation for the Georgia Senate.
He credited the influence of World War II with an attitude of general acceptance of Catholics and recounted how Chief Jenkins, who was not Catholic, met his best friend, a Catholic, during the war.
“(Jenkins) remembered how loyal his friend was (to his faith) and even went to midnight Mass with him.”
Msgr. Kiernan also mentioned the efforts to debunk misunderstandings of Catholicism through the Catholic Laymen’s Association under the direction of men like Hugh Kinchley. The group was organized in the early part of the century in answer to a swell of anti-Catholicism in the state.
“Gentlemen would write in and he’d give answers to their questions, breaking down barriers that way.”
Many of the diocesan priests were ecumenical in spirit. The monsignor noted Father Jim King who joined the Elks Club and became its national chaplain, as well as the legendary Msgr. Joseph G. Cassidy, who traveled the back roads of Georgia in a trailer, celebrating Mass for pockets of Catholics and preaching to anyone who would listen.
“In the meantime, the church was growing,” he explained. “For every priest, there were a lot of thrills.”
He described that in the early years, when priests from the diocese took vacations, they would also take up a collection wherever they went for the mission territory of Georgia. “We never asked for reimbursement when traveling. We felt we were part of building up the church.”
He reflected on his many years serving what has become a booming archdiocese.
“All of this—I was part of it—but at the time I didn’t really know all that was going on. Everything just started growing.”
These days Msgr. Kiernan enjoys taking trips, particularly to the coast, preferring to travel by car rather than by plane.
He joked, “I’ve never learned how to make a perfect Act of Contrition.”
Father James L. Harrison
When Father James L. Harrison considers what drew him to the priesthood, it doesn’t take him long to credit the presence of the Marist priests in his life. His first memory is not of the years he spent with them in the classroom as a student at Marist School, but of the priests’ excursion to watch the Atlanta Crackers baseball team, paying 15 cents to ride the old Georgia Power streetcar.
“I can still see them sitting up on the last row wearing white sports shirts and black pants,” said Father Harrison, who now serves as pastor of St. Marguerite D’Youville Church in Lawrenceville.
There are a lot of other firsts in the priest’s life. Father Harrison likes to share that he is the first priest to have graduated from the University of Georgia, as years ago there was a reluctance to send priests to secular schools. He earned a degree there before becoming the first principal of St. Pius X High School in 1958.
Among the first of Georgia natives to be ordained a diocesan priest for the Atlanta Diocese, Father Harrison has a rich family history in the state as well. His grandmother was born on a ship as her family returned to Atlanta after fleeing to Baltimore during the Civil War. His father and uncle were the only two students ever to earn graduate degrees from Marist College before it became solely a secondary military academy for boys, and eventually a co-ed school for students in seventh to 12th grades. His uncle was very active in the Catholic Laymen’s Association, which sought to educate those outside the church on the Catholic faith.
Since his mother was Baptist, his parents were married in the front parlor of the rectory at Sacred Heart Church in Atlanta because at that time ecumenical marriages were not celebrated in the church as they are today.
“In those days we were one diocese, the Diocese of Savannah. And then they built a co-cathedral and we became the Diocese of Savannah-Atlanta.”
In the ninth grade Father Harrison attended Marist School, later graduating from Catholic University of America and then was chosen to study at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he was ordained a priest in 1955.
He lightheartedly and modestly added that the “students over there were way above me intellectually,” as his graduating class included a good number who went on to become bishops and cardinals.
Not long after his ordination, the day arrived when the creation of the Diocese of Atlanta was announced.
“I remember being in the front parlor of Immaculate Conception. The priest called from the front door and brought in a map with a line drawn that explained the two dioceses.”
For a time, Father Harrison was unsure in which diocese he would serve.
“The date the diocese was split was in early July,” he explained. I wasn’t assigned (to a parish at the time.)”
In November he found out that he would serve the church community at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Three years later, he became the principal of the new diocesan high school, St. Pius X High School, a rival from the start to his alma mater, and the first Catholic co-educational school in the state and the first with air conditioning.
The new school brought together the girls schools operating out of Sacred Heart Church and the Cathedral of Christ the King, and opened with only eight boys.
“Marist referred to us as a girls school,” Father Harrison recalled, but he marvels still how then Coach George Maloof took what few boys there were and tied Marist in the school’s first football game.
“We had an excellent staff—four different orders of nuns and each group ran a different department.”
He has visited the cemeteries, gravesites and battlefields journeyed by his Catholic and Protestant relatives.
“This diocese has a rich history,” he said. “If more people could see the progress in the church they may be more inclined to invest not only in their own parishes, but in the archdiocese.”
With most family members on his mother’s side being Protestant, Father Harrison attended public schools early on, recalling then how students attended chapel on Wednesdays and read from the Bible, and a cross stood in the hallway on Good Friday.
“There were only three Catholics in the whole school.”
He fondly recalled his public school principal, who visited students’ homes for tea every year and whose service to education he was able to honor publicly at the first honors banquet at St. Pius. Times have changed, he admitted, and a greater diversity among the belief systems of those attending public schools has emerged. He still believes that what educators teach goes beyond their subject matter.
“Students know by the way (the teachers) live their lives what’s right and not right.”
Father Harrison has 24 years of experience with the public school system, serving as assistant principal at Sprayberry High School for 18 years and as an administrative assistant at Oakwood Open Campus High School for six years. Like a significant number of Religious and clergy following what Father Harrison termed “the upheaval” of Vatican II, he left the active priesthood, but following a period of time he returned to the practice of his Catholic faith. After he retired from the public school system he approached the archdiocese about returning to the priesthood, was accepted, and said that now he’s “never been happier.”
He also recalled attending Mass with his father in Decatur as a young boy.
“In those days the church was the center of social and religious life,” he said. “Later, Catholics were absorbed into the greater society.”
Now no longer seeing their church as the place to socialize, more people question church teachings and don’t feel the need for religion, Father Harrison explained. “There’s an increase in divorce, young people don’t pay attention (to what’s right and wrong) and people don’t go to church. But the church is needed to help people grow more, particularly when they’re under duress.”
Father Richard B. Morrow
Father Richard B. Morrow, now retired and in residence at the Cathedral of Christ the King, remembers well the installation Mass of Bishop Francis E. Hyland, the first bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta. All priests were to attend the ceremony to promise their obedience to the new bishop.
“I was chosen to process in with the cross,” he recalled. “When I went to put the cross into the sacristy the parish secretary was there and told me that there was an emergency at the VA Hospital.”
Father Morrow, then assigned to serve as chaplain at the hospital, left to attend to the emergency only to return in time to carry the cross in the concluding processional.
Father Morrow’s absence during the pledge of obedience was unavoidable and one thing he brought up with Bishop Hyland on occasion.
“I was always kidding him about it.”
His journey to the priesthood attests to the craftiness of God’s providence. On the verge of expulsion for his terrible temper, he surprised the headmaster at the Jesuit high school he was attending in the Northeast by admitting that he hoped to go on to the seminary.
“Then I had to go,” he said, “and I found that I actually liked it.”
Once in the seminary, he realized how helpful priests are—how they must be patient in the confessional and prepare good homilies.
His home state of Connecticut had 800 priests at the time, and he realized that he was not needed there.
“I started to investigate, thinking that I might be a foreign missionary. Then a Glenmary priest came to speak (to the seminarians).”
The priest talked about how Glenmary priests work in priestless areas, including in the mission territory of Georgia.
“I became the 42nd priest active in the state,” said Father Morrow, who was ordained in 1955.
The son of a civil rights activist, Father Morrow recalled being a high school student doing homework as he received phone calls from those who were angry about his father’s stand on civil rights. When he arrived in the South, he noticed right away the far reach of segregation. After his first assignment at Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Atlanta, he was sent as pastor to St. Bernadette Church in Cedartown, the only integrated facility in town.
“I tried to be careful,” he confided. “I wouldn’t preach the whole sermon on civil rights but would slip in some of the principles. Catholic people, very few resisted it.”
Later, he was responsible for developing a small mission in Carrollton into the parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, living among a population that was “one-third of one percent Catholic.”
“I ran into a lot of misunderstandings of Catholics, suspicions of Catholics. … Suspicion breeds fear and brings on prejudice.”
Prejudice was not only racially-based, but would rear its head against the minority Catholic population on occasion, said Father Morrow, who grew up in a predominantly Catholic area in Stamford, Conn. He recalled when a parishioner came to him for advice on filling out a job application. The man understood that if he put ‘Catholic’ as his religion on the application that he would not get the job.
“I told him to write ‘Christian,’ which was much more accepted.”
As best he could, Father Morrow “mixed in” with the community and other ministerial associates. “Some clergy were more comfortable being with a priest than others. I learned a lot from them.”
As more Catholics moved into North Georgia, the number of non-Catholics interested in the Catholic faith continued to grow; the wheels of change were put into motion.
“It became obvious that Atlanta needed its own diocese,” said Father Morrow.
For a time Father Morrow shuttled Msgr. Joseph Moylan to the state office not knowing that the monsignor was digging up statistics for a report to Rome.
“I just dropped him off and went to visit the sick. He didn’t volunteer any information.”
Then the letter came from Rome without any particular fanfare or ceremony: The Diocese of Atlanta was established.
He remembered fun times when the community came together, such as big dances held at the naval air station for teenagers as part of the popular CYO, or Catholic Youth Organization.
“The sailors would open their parachutes to create a false ceiling in one of the hangers. The teenagers would stop at the gate and say what they were there for and then salute. They loved it! Teens from all the parishes got to know each other.”
Having a smaller Catholic population had its advantages.
“One of the things that I miss was when there were fewer of us (Catholics),” Father Morrow said. “If I went to Decatur to visit the sick at Emory Hospital I would think nothing of going to St. Thomas More for lunch. And for the Catholic people—and it was the same thing for everyone—you would hear a name and you might not know them (personally), but you knew their parish. … There was more camaraderie.”
Without this stronger connection to their parishes, Catholics are more susceptible to feeling the societal pressures that distract, challenge and even attack their beliefs.
“This has always pushed other values on us. In a sense, too, we fight prejudice, although it’s different. We’re called to be different if we truly follow Christ, not give in to consumerism, shady movies and things on the Internet—and in business.”
Father Morrow mused on another change he has noticed over the years. In his early days at Our Lady of Assumption Church there was no air conditioning.
“If I didn’t preach, no one complained,” he said, smiling. “Now if there isn’t a homily or if it isn’t well thought out, people complain.”
Also the way Catholics celebrate Mass needs to be with enthusiasm, he continued, and not just thought of as a duty as it may have more often felt like for some people years ago.
“Georgia was 1 percent Catholic, but I never regretted coming down here,” he said. “I’ve been able to see the growth of Catholicism, and being a minority has been helpful. It forces you to take a better look at what you believe in and allows you to see the need to strengthen those beliefs.”
That is true even more so today with the tremendous growth of the Catholic population in North Georgia since his arrival, Father Morrow added.
“Today we need to strengthen our faith … strengthen our beliefs as followers of Christ and not get caught up in consumerism or various forms of immoral conduct. It takes more devotion and studying.”
When others venture beyond their “native environments” to become involved in parish life, for instance, they accept the challenge to grow in faith.
“I’m inspired by the sacrifices I see by those who do strengthen their devotion and who grow in their knowledge of Christ.”