By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published December 14, 2006
Father Patrick F. Mulhern was “a man of exquisite understatement who invited people to do great things with very few words,” said Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.
“He invited rather than coerced. He suggested rather than commanded. He proposed rather than required. … That was the way Jesus taught.”
Preaching at the funeral Mass for Father Mulhern on Dec. 4 at St. Thomas More Church, Archbishop Gregory acknowledged that he had only been able to meet personally with the priest on one occasion since he was installed as archbishop and then to pray for him at the hospital, but he gleaned a great deal from the stories told him by others.
The sagas of Father Pat’s misplaced keys, his unkempt hair, his meandering homilies merely serve to underline how his “charming missteps made him even more lovable to even more people,” Archbishop Gregory said.
“He was more concerned about people than about himself, and that is an enviable epitaph for any priest or even any archbishop,” he continued.
“Thank you, Pat, for being a witness to the Beatitudes and to that simplicity of life that people have a right to expect from us, who are your priests.”
The archbishop also thanked Ann Dugan, who served as pastoral associate at St. Thomas More while Father Mulhern was pastor, and her extended family for their great friendship with and care for him.
“To the Dugan family, his dear friends here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta … who loved him and cared for him, thank you for your compassion and kindness to this priest of the archdiocese,” Archbishop Gregory said.
The funeral Mass was concelebrated by more than 70 priests of the archdiocese and attended by hundreds of people from the parishes where Father Mulhern had served over the years; those who came filled every seat, stood in the aisles and gathered in crowds in the rear and vestibule of the church.
The Gospel reading from St. Matthew was of Jesus teaching the Beatitudes. Music, sung by the parish choir with special cantors, included “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and “Pie Jesu.”
Father Mulhern died Nov. 29 at Piedmont Hospital at the age of 67.
Born in Coolaney, County Sligo, Ireland, on Sept. 10, 1939, Father Mulhern was a priest for 42 years, serving in the Archdiocese of Atlanta since 1969.
He was the pastor of five parishes over a period of 25 years in the archdiocese, the longest assignment being at St. Thomas More where he was pastor for 12 years from 1987-99.
Prior to that, he was the pastor of St. Pius X Church, Conyers, from 1983-87; of St. Mary’s Church, Rome, from 1977-83; of St. John Vianney Church, Lithia Springs, from 1975-77; and of St. Bernadette Church, Cedartown, from 1973-75.
Before his first pastorate, he was an assistant pastor at St. Thomas More and at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta, and administrator of St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Alpharetta. He was also priest-in-charge of a newly forming mission in the Buford area in 1975.
At a Mass on June 3, 1989 celebrating Father Mulhern’s 25th anniversary of ordination, a speaker noted that it was the part of the church liturgical year known as Ordinary Time, which was just the way Father Mulhern liked it.
“I’m a parish priest. I’m not anything else,” he said in a 1989 anniversary interview. “It’s my primary interest in life. I’m a work-a-day parish priest.”
At the same time, his foibles, like constantly losing his rectory and car keys and glasses, and his self-deprecating humor, were legendary.
When his planned simple outdoor silver anniversary celebration led to a last-minute rush inside by all the people and all the props to avoid rain, he wrote in the parish bulletin: “They say that Gandhi’s insistence on living a simple life caused endless trouble.”
When annual fund drives came along, his signature approach was to say something like “you good people know what needs to be done,” and without mentioning it again somehow the goal was met.
His homilies often focused upon the need to build the Christian community in the parish and to move from the celebration of the Eucharist to living the faith in community.
One of seven children of the late John and Eileen Mulhern, Father Mulhern was ordained in Ireland for the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson, Miss., on June 21, 1964. But he was virtually unique there as a priest from All Hallows College Seminary in Dublin. “I almost died of loneliness,” he said. He moved to the Atlanta Archdiocese in 1969, where there was a group of Irish priests, including several from All Hallows. He said he immediately took to Atlanta, appreciating its bustle, vitality and climate.
As pastor of St. Thomas More Church he initiated a parish assembly, drawing parishioners together to dream and brainstorm about the future of the parish community.
The process led to the revival of a parish pastoral council and a master plan that included the building of a new parish hall in 1991, improved accessibility to the church, and major renovations to the parish school, which was named a national School of Excellence in 1988. Parish involvement in outreach to the poor in Decatur was also strengthened and new parish social traditions were started, including the annual More Festival and 5K run he initiated. The new hall was later formally named Mulhern Hall.
These revitalizing and community-building efforts laid the groundwork for a 2002 major expansion and renovation of the church, the addition of a day chapel, and the building of a new school enrichment building and gymnasium completed by his successors.
Sal DeGaetano and his wife, Diane, belonged to St. Thomas More for seven years from the time they were newlyweds in 1986 to 1993. Father Mulhern baptized their daughters, Nicole and Michelle, and they belonged to a parish group of couples with young children, St. Monica’s Circle, that forged great friendships and brought vitality to parish undertakings.
At the baptisms, DeGaetano remembers the pastor holding the baby up high for the whole congregation to see. “He had strong, big hands. He grabs her by his one big hand and kind of raised her up. … That was cool.”
A man who started his family late in life, DeGaetno said he found in Father Mulhern “a real father, a real shepherd.”
“He was just for the common man. … He was a regular guy. …. I guess it would be like meeting Christ as a friend, as a real concerned friend,” DeGaetano said. “He gave me great comfort that everything was going to be okay.”
“I went to confession to him all the time,” he said. “I felt very at ease with him. He was always there for us; he calmed us down. … He had no prejudgments. He didn’t have an ax to grind. He was approachable. You could sit down and talk to him. That is a great gift to have.”
The man who “looked like the spitting image of Rex Harrison” and whose quick-witted Irish humor put everyone at ease communicated “a great love” to his parishioners, DeGaetano said. “I am going to miss him terribly.”
Peggy Saunders said the jam-packed funeral Mass for Father Mulhern exemplified for her the vital community he envisioned and labored to build in St. Thomas More.
“I loved seeing the place bursting at the seams. That was what he had done, bringing everyone together,” she said.
She traced her family’s connection to the community to St. Monica’s Circle, formed by the pastoral associate and the pastor to help new members, especially mothers with young children, meet and support one another.
“So many of us who had moved from all over came here, and we didn’t really know anybody. With St. Monica’s we were able to get to know somebody else. … In many ways it helped to revitalize the church. We started the More Festival. We started the children’s liturgy,” Saunders said.
She gently recalls Father Mulhern’s humanness. “He always made announcements with the wrong date and baptized our children with the wrong names.” But it became a greater connection with his human parishioners.
“I think he confessed to all of us at one time or another—‘I blew that’; ‘I screwed up with that,’” she said.
Belying his absent-mindedness, Saunders said, “he was incredibly intelligent, well read.”
“He listened to people, thought about it and synthesized things. … He was always confessing: ‘What else should I be doing?’ ‘How can I help?’ … He was good. He was amazing. He would make the connections,” she said.
Jane McNabb, who served as chair of the parish finance committee while Father Mulhern was pastor and on the parish school planning and building committees, said he “seemed to bring a breath of fresh air into the church” when he arrived.
“I think I didn’t realize how special he was until he was gone,” she said. “He really encouraged young people, and he encouraged women to be part of the parish decision-making team.”
She was about 27 years old when he asked her to be on the finance council. “At the time I was a vice president at one of the major banks. I had the credentials … and he let me do it. … He took chances with people who were in their 20s, like me at the time, and let us use the expertise we had.”
St. Thomas More School was of great concern to him, she said. “He put a lot of energy into keeping the school a vital Catholic school.”
“He really, really felt responsible for that school,” McNabb said. “The spirit the school has is the same spirit he helped keep in it. … He wanted it to be a top-notch school.”
He revitalized the celebration of the sacraments, she said, also mentioning the baptisms of her children at Mass.
“To him, baptism meant something about the community of our parish. Two of my children were baptized by him, and I still remember how wonderful it was,” McNabb said. “He liked to baptize during the Mass. It meant you were going to raise this child in this faith community. It meant this child was going to have the support of the community after it was baptized.”
She reflected upon the sense of true involvement in the church she had had and her awareness that this is a lasting gift Father Mulhern gave parishioners.
“He also more than anyone else I’ve seen made us feel the parish belonged to us. … I hear his voice calling me again. If we are the church then we have to be the church. That is what he was trying to get us to see, I think. His influence is not finished. It will continue to go on. … He was a wonderful man.”
Father Mulhern is survived by three sisters: Olive Anderson of Melbourne, Australia; Faye Austin of Oxford, England; and Helen Cassidy of Dublin, Ireland; and by a brother, Philip Mulhern of Newton Abbot, England.
Memorial contributions may be made to Catholic Relief Services African Famine Relief at Catholic Relief Services, P.O. Box 17090, Baltimore, MD 21203-7090.