Published February 1, 2007
Father Joseph Fahy, CP, diligently established and nurtured Spanish Masses across North Georgia beginning in 1983, welcoming the immigrant, raising the consciousness among Anglos of the immigrant’s plight, and helping to build the framework for the now nearly 60 flourishing Hispanic ministries across the Atlanta Archdiocese.
He died on Jan. 22 at age 78, after a brief illness. His funeral Mass was celebrated on Jan. 26 at the Cathedral of Christ the King by Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue. The homilist was Passionist Father John O’Brien, who had been a roommate in New Jersey. Also in attendance was Passionist provincial Father Joseph R. Jones.
Friends and colleagues at the funeral recalled how Father Fahy raised his articulate voice on behalf of poor immigrants, from the editorial pages of major newspapers to the doors of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, and how he extended Christ’s love to both the illiterate and the erudite. They also described the scholarly shepherd’s quirky, professorial verve, with his frumpy cotton sweaters and scuffed shoes, and his enjoyment of meandering walks after a night at the symphony and intellectual conversations. They remembered how he savored reading The New York Times, eating his favorite spaghetti and meatballs, or pondering race relations over breakfast at St. Paul the Cross Church, where he had served as parochial vicar since last June.
Gonzalo Saldaña, as director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry during the 1990s, worked closely with Father Fahy, who also worked in archdiocesan Hispanic ministry from 1983-87 and 1989-2007, taking a break to serve in Honduras in 1988. He came to the archdiocese from New Jersey in 1983 at the invitation of then-Father Bill Hoffman to help celebrate Masses in Spanish, which he did in 17 parishes or missions across North Georgia. Parishes in Carrollton, Canton, Jasper, Hartwell, Gainesville and LaGrange are a few of those where he served. Saldaña called him a “great advocate” for the immigrant, regardless of nationality. Sometimes he would accompany the priest, and he wouldn’t plan to get home early.
“He loved working with the poor. He loved to welcome the stranger to the point where he used to go to places—sometimes I’d be with him—he’d always wait until the last person had arrived. He never started Mass on time. He was always so hopeful” that another soul would arrive, Saldaña recalled. “He gave some spiritual direction to so many people in a very quiet way. He never bragged about it. He was in so many places. He knew North Georgia blindfolded, and he would go anywhere.”
He also admired Father Fahy’s generous spirit. “It was wonderful to work with him as his credentials were incredible. He was a scholar, and at the same time you couldn’t find a more humble person. He was really out of this world. He always had a kind word for everybody—very quiet, very reserved,” he said, adding that he rarely complained about others.
At the funeral Mass the cantor led the congregation of diverse races and cultures in the responsorial psalm, singing in Spanish, “Good and upright is the Lord, who shows sinners the way, guides the humble rightly, and teaches the humble the way.”
Father O’Brien opened his homily by soulfully singing “Hush, hush. Somebody’s callin’ my name. Oh my Lord, oh my Lord, what shall I do?”
He said that when Father Fahy was a senior at Georgetown University he heard the hushed call of Christ to be a priest and was drawn to the Passionist preaching, compassion for the poor and life of cruciformity with Christ. He affirmed that he was a man of “profound contemplative prayer” who lived under the sovereignty of the Word, and who indeed called things as they really are.
“He was a man of justice and compassion. As Christ crucified stretched out His hands and opened His arms to embrace East and West, so also did Father Joe Fahy open his arms to embrace so many.”
The Passionist, who had an Irish heritage, grew up in Washington, D.C., and after graduating from St. Michael Seminary in Union City, N.J., he was ordained on April 28, 1956. He spent the 1960s ministering in the Union City parish of St. Michael’s, an area with a large number of Cuban immigrants. Father O’Brien said that when Father Fahy was ordained he wanted to study history and theology but was disappointed when he was told to go to Puerto Rico to continue studying in Spanish, where he studied liberation theology among other topics. However, Father Fahy later attended night classes at New York University to earn a master’s degree in Latin American history. In addition, he earned a master of theology degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and eventually also earned a doctorate in theology from Harvard.
He often gave people money in a crunch. He was bound by love to the suffering and the poor and always had time to listen. “Joe cared about the least, the last and the left out. He learned it from his mother, a deeply committed Methodist.”
He told the story of how the priest, as a boy, was sitting with his mother who was knitting on their front porch. She noticed an African-American woman waiting for the bus. Several buses passed until Mrs. Fahy crossed the street and stood with the lady at the stop after which a bus stopped. Without saying a word she then returned to her chair.
Father Fahy also loved the writings of John Henry Cardinal Newman, and on his desk kept a copy of “Parochial and Plain Sermons,” in which he underlined words from a sermon that “instead of being the selfish creatures which we were by nature, grace acting through suffering, tends to make us ready teachers and witnesses of Truth to all men.”
“Joe let God mold him in the crucible of suffering” and was “an extremely sensitive man,” said Father O’Brien. “Joe was sensitive to those dying to cross over from poverty into fields of freedom and places of plenty. He was sensitive to the children of immigrants and to those newly arrived in our land. Joe learned a lot of languages, but his goal was not just to learn a new language. His goal was to learn a new language so that he could join hearts.”
He also spoke fondly of his friend’s foibles. “He was very independent and stubborn as all get out. He could tick off authority. A few times he read me letters he wrote and sent to his provincial. I would say, ‘Joe, are you nuts? I hope you didn’t send that.’—He had,” he recalled. “I once made a decision that was downright wrong. He tore my hide off.”
He ended by reading from Langston Hughes’ poem, “Mother to Son,” which closes, “… don’t you turn back, don’t you set down on the steps. ‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard. Don’t you fall now—For I’se still goin’, honey, I’se still climbin’, And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”
Archbishop Donoghue spoke on behalf of Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who was out of town, expressing how “he, like me, very quickly came to know Joe Fahy as one of the most pleasant, dedicated and most generous priests and gentlemen we had ever had the privilege of working with … who advocated tirelessly for the poor, dispossessed, homeless, mentally and physically challenged.”
He recalled his “smiling face and somewhat shambling gait” and quiet, moving ministry wherever he found a need.
Father O’Brien, in an interview on the sunlit Cathedral plaza following the service, said he was personally inspired by the priest’s love of learning and that he encouraged him to get his doctorate.
“A lot of guys didn’t know him or understand him because he was prophetic. A lot of people didn’t want to hear what he had to say,” he said, adding that Father Fahy’s dissertation on “three Cuban churchmen who wrote about anti-slavery theology in Cuba in the late 1700s and early 1800s is still considered the definitive work on anti-slavery theology in Cuban church history.”
His cousin, Anne Fahy Sheehan, who came from Washington for the funeral, said that his aunt and godmother, Hannah Fahy, or Sister Peter Claver, MSBT, taught literacy in a maximum security prison in her 90s and “was a big influence” until her death at 105.
“She did mission work among Indians and blacks in the South,” Sheehan said. She added that their fathers, who were brothers, grew up in Rome, Ga., where their family would open their home monthly for Mass for the community, considered mission territory then. Sheehan’s father, Charles Fahy, was solicitor general under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was outspoken on behalf of Native Americans in the Southwest and labor rights and was named by President Harry Truman to head the commission guiding him on desegregating the Armed Services.
Father John Kieran, pastor of St. Pius X Church in Conyers, introduced himself to the family members and affirmed the priest’s honorable service. He said Father Fahy “did an enormous amount to help us have a ministry to Hispanic people. He did a great job—he could accept every situation wherever it was. He wouldn’t talk down to anyone, just did what needed to be done” and during meetings would quietly listen to other’s points of view before humbly making cogent points.
Father Fahy had said in a Georgia Bulletin June 2006 jubilee anniversary interview that the Passionists’ emphasis on hours of daily prayer sustained him in his ministry and that his own vocation among Hispanic immigrants, offering the Mass in their native language and trying to preserve their “treasure” of the faith, came “in part from certain traditions in the (Fahy) family” and then from “God’s grace.”
“I think awareness, too, of trying to serve these people who don’t know the language, the culture, (who are) trying to get jobs, raise their children, make a life for themselves, trying to help such worthy people,” has been inspiring, he said.
His friend Dr. Jorge Lawton, a specialist in international economics and ethics who previously served as a distinguished fellow at the Center for Ethics at Emory University, remembered how Father Fahy was summoned when Cuban prisoners started riots and fires at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. An estimated 2,500 Cuban men had been incarcerated there after being pushed out of Cuba by Fidel Castro in the Mariel boatlift and were ill-equipped for life in the United States, either mentally unstable or in legal trouble. From 1983-85 Father Fahy visited them in prison, wrote about their plight in over 50 letters to the editor published in national newspapers. He testified twice before Congress pleading on their behalf.
“Joe walked in with nothing and calmly and quietly started speaking in Spanish” with no weapon and was able to effectively mediate, said Lawton. He said that Father Fahy had been ministering in Honduras to poor peasant communities and because he spoke out for their human rights the new military dictatorship “gave him warnings and then kicked him out of the country.” He enjoyed wide-ranging conversations with the priest on politics, literature, theology, culture, and especially on concerns for Hispanics in North Georgia. He added that the priest, with a quiet voice and mischievous eyes, had “really bad puns,” and loved the symphony and the South. When Lawton returned from trips to Cuba, he would always pepper him with questions about the status of the church on the island. He had invited him for Christmas to spend with his family, but he said he was spending it “with one of my families in North Georgia and it will be simple and lovely.”
“I felt like an older brother, and I’m not older. There was something very vulnerable about Joe,” Lawton said. “I could feel the Holy Spirit in him and acting through him. This man exuded gentle and persistent love.”
An Episcopalian, Lawton appreciated how Father Fahy lived ecumenism and always attended the annual Taste of Latin America fundraiser, this year to be held at St. Philip’s Episcopal Cathedral Feb. 10. He noted that at the wake at St. Paul of the Cross Church, several Hispanics approached his casket and stood in front of it crying, touching it.
Antonio Marcos, a Hispanic leader at Our Lady of LaSalette Church in Canton, said about 40 people attended the wake from that largely Guatemalan community. Marcos said Father Fahy had celebrated Mass every Sunday in Canton until last year and also taught Bible study and leadership, never complaining of fatigue or slowing down in his work for God.
Deacon Hilliard Lee was among the many funeral attendees from St. Paul of the Cross. He recalled his conversations with him, “We talked about the plight of African-Americans, the plight of the Hispanic population in America and in some way the similarities of the two groups,” he said, adding that “he loved his New York Times. He read that thing every day. He was just an overall good guy.”
Sylvia Maldonado also worked with Father Fahy in the Hispanic Ministry Office and recalled how, as he used his articulate voice in his writing, she would often have to write and rewrite his letters to the editor and opinion pieces to newspapers such as the Atlanta Journal Constitution and The New York Times.
“He would make sure it was just the right word. He’d read it again and change something else and re-correct it. He was a perfectionist,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. She had most recently accompanied him to protest the Central American Free Trade Agreement at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. “When he had the chance to meet with certain officials, he would let them know about the situation with Hispanic immigrants.”
Tere Pagés recalled how in the 1980s “Padre Pepe” helped open the doors, and minds, of St. Joseph Church in Athens to the Hispanics, where he celebrated a monthly Mass. He often visited people in their homes or at prison after Mass when asked, and when two Guatemalans were in court he sat through their entire trials.
“It was his demeanor, his caring, just a beautiful person. His Spanish was absolutely glorious. He spoke wonderful Spanish. I’m Cuban—he always had phrases in Cuban,” she said, just as he spoke Mexican phrases to Mexicans.
“He was always willing to go and visit the sick or those in jail or in trouble, and he had time for the sacrament of reconciliation even if it was at the very last minute, giving of himself all the time.”
She mused on how they once took up a collection for him to buy a new pair of shoes. “He was oblivious to a lot of things but was not absent-minded in his heart.”
She appreciated how he pointed out the incongruent attitude of those who welcome the cheap labor of the undocumented and other poor immigrants but then vilify them as strangers without human rights. And he wasn’t concerned about making others mad, but he spoke of those with whom he disagreed with respect. “Everybody loved him. He was someone who could relate so well to the community, a gringo who fused himself with the community, those who were coming and arriving in the area.”
Father Joe Shaute, a parochial vicar for Hispanic parishioners at St. Theresa Church, Douglasville, was also inspired by the senior priest.
“At certain points in the 80s, he was one of only two or three priests who spoke Spanish. Being a gringo myself, for him to develop a love for people who spoke another language really inspired and engaged me when I was just starting in Hispanic ministry and wondering what God was calling me into,” he said. “He was positive and encouraging and a friend and mentor in many ways, so I will miss him and being able to call him up and talk to him about the challenge of doing ministry to people so different than myself. He helped me to focus on the joy and beauty of all people.”