By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published May 15, 2008
The music group setting up for Mass had eight singers, five guitarists, a pianist, a flutist and a brass player, about four times more people than on a typical Sunday. They had practiced secretly in another location on the Georgia Tech campus.
Downstairs, tables were surreptitiously prepared for a massive buffet of sandwiches, platters of fresh fruits and vegetables, soft drinks and cakes paid for by Coach George O’Leary, Tech’s football coach in the 1990s.
When they set up 300 chairs for Mass, Franciscan Father Mario DiLella knew his “kids” were up to something. The people drifting in were not just students, but they tried to look innocent per the plan students had cooked up and sent out by e-mail.
However, when Father Kevin Hargaden, Tech ’94 and past president of the campus Catholic Center, showed up to concelebrate, along with vicar general Msgr. Joseph Corbett, all pretense that this was an ordinary Sunday Mass was over.
After 37 and a half years, it was the last Sunday Father Mario would celebrate Mass as Georgia Tech’s Catholic chaplain. He couldn’t get mad but just said these visitors were “cramping my style” as he preached to the students who have been his whole life.
Father Mario spoke of his favorite saint, Peter, and repeated messages that he wanted to underline for the last time.
“Guys and girls, we are all in this thing together. It is our obligation, our duty, to carry out the work of the church. The Lord priests and deacons serve is the same Lord lay people serve. … This is the mind-boggling truth. We are the people of God. Know this and believe it.”
“We must never forget that in the church we are not just walking with those who are walking with the Lord. Don’t ever put yourselves down. We ourselves are walking with the Lord. … Don’t let anyone else be in our place that we ourselves have been called to be—a chosen race, a royal priesthood.”
A basket of blessed rosaries sat next to a stack of Bibles on a table at the entrance. Signs said take one, they are free. He told students one last time to read the Bible every day, getting that in the homily too.
“Keep up the good work,” he said. “God has blessed this ministry because of you kids. You have been faithful to the Lord. You are fulfilling your obligation as Catholic Christians.”
The Catholic Center is spotlessly clean and uncluttered. Sunlight pours in. The contemporary furniture is inviting. The center is always open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
A cross with the figure of the risen Christ on it dominates the worship area. The passage chosen for the dedication of the center over 20 years ago is still fresh and bright on the walls: “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
“Resurrection, power and light is the whole thrust of our ministry here—vitality,” Father Mario said in an interview a few days before he left the campus.
Father Mario hugs all the students, men and women, who come for Mass. Bad press for priests he shakes off emphatically. He has never stopped hugging, and he never will, “never, never, never.”
“You should feel some of them hugging back,” he said. “They need to be loved, and they know I love them.”
What is more surprising: that 20-year-olds love an 81-year-old priest or that until this May Father Mario was still making his daily rounds around campus and living on the top floor of the Catholic Center next to fraternity row?
He chose religious life at 17. Before coming to Georgia Tech he spent five years as a chaplain in the Air Force, remaining a reservist for 26 more years, and he served as pastor for six years of a Franciscan parish in Thomaston, Georgia. He asked to stay in Georgia but initially refused the campus ministry post, hoping to be assigned to Immaculate Conception Shrine in Atlanta. Then he had a moment in the confession box when he changed his mind and said, why not? He asked his provincial if he could try the campus ministry in September 1970.
Early years at Tech were challenging. “I felt very lost until we started a community,” he said.
The Catholic Center then was a little house on campus, too small for Mass. For 15 years he carried the vestments and sacred vessels in two suitcases and celebrated Mass in other campus locations. After a couple of years he gathered those who were regulars and challenged them. “I said nothing’s going on, let’s do something.”
He grins. “We started on our first big beer bash—beer and pizza.”
It may have been unorthodox—“we scandalized the Baptists and everyone else around”—but a keg of beer and free pizza started something that has been going on at the Tech Catholic Center for about 35 years. “When you work together, play together, you get to know each other.”
Another tradition the students came up with about 30 years ago was Thanksgiving Day dinner.
The holiday is short, “a lot of kids can’t get away,” Father Mario said. “There are foreign students.”
They put up hundreds of flyers across campus. The first year about 35 people came. Now over 100 people come. They cook four turkeys, all the trimmings and desserts and serve a family Thanksgiving dinner after 11:30 a.m. Mass.
“We minister to everyone regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof,” he said.
The students also were instrumental in the development of the Catholic Center that opened in 1985. Father Mario recalled a group of five or six students who worked for six months on a letter of need to the archdiocese as Catholics became the largest denomination on the Tech campus and woefully outgrew their old quarters.
“It took six months to write that letter. We parsed every word,” he said. “Within a week the committee wrote back and said, ‘You guys did your homework. You need a new building.’”
It became one of four projects funded by an archdiocesan capital funds drive in 1984, while the Tech Catholic community raised an additional $100,000 to furnish the 13,500-square-foot building.
Today there are 11 student committees active at the center, including ushers, lectors, eucharistic ministers, music, social activities, retreats, outreach, buildings and grounds. The president, a student also, oversees the committees and guides meetings and activities.
Every Saturday morning a group from the Catholic Center goes to St. Francis Table at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to serve food to the homeless. Retreats, another student idea, are held each semester at the monastery in Conyers. Mass is celebrated every day except one, Father Mario’s day off. He always gives a homily. Adoration is held weekly.
They know he is there. He has heard it all, living in the midst of a demanding academic community where high-achievers try to navigate work, but also relationships and self-knowledge. He has talked broken-hearted students into coming to see him every week rather than giving up on their lives.
“The engineering student is a very serious student, a very traditional student,” Father Mario said.
“Before I got here I wondered how we got to the moon,” he said. “After six months here, I didn’t wonder anymore.”
While he stresses “the holy Eucharist … very adamantly” and prayer, he credits the Holy Spirit with bringing the community to life.
“It is the Holy Spirit that moves. I am so convinced of that,” Father Mario said. “People don’t believe how many kids come to Masses, not only on Sunday when we have four Masses, but every day.”
He is fortunate, he says, that 99 percent of his “parish” is “young kids, 18 to 22, all engineers, scientists. I know their mentality after 38 years. I can speak right to them.”
“I always call them ‘my Kids,’ very lovingly, with a capital K. They are my grandkids now. I have children of the kids I had. … I tell the kids, you are such a joy. Be sure you tell your folks thank you for sending (you) to me.”
Chu Meh Chu, president of the Catholic Center this year, said Father Mario “has been a father to me in the most literal sense.”
“I confide to him every aspect of life,” he said. “Before I used to try to be very spiritual in an aloof way, but Father Mario constantly reminded me to do the ordinary things with great fidelity. He tells me, ‘Chu, read the Bible and do not go into these deep books.’”
“Father is a great all-round priest,” said the doctoral student in electrical engineering. “He is very devoted to daily Mass and is always available to encourage us in our walk with Christ.”
Greg Rohling, a graduate and now on the Tech faculty, said, “The way he ran this was pure Franciscan. … It is a no-frills place. He watches the bottom line extremely well.”
As a senior, Rohling was the “resident slave” at the Catholic Center—the unofficial term for the resident student who gets a free room on the bottom floor in exchange for “being the janitor.”
For students, Father Mario is “the loving father figure you need at that phase in your life,” Rohling said. “Accepting you where you are, but never letting the Gospel go.”
Maria Murray, who graduated in 1983 in electrical engineering, asked Father Mario to officiate at her wedding and to baptize her three children.
Father Mario “always loves you. He is always happy to see you,” she said. “You always know God loves you because (Father Mario) always loves you.”
One day Marika Donders, a 1987 architecture graduate, walked in after having been away from church for a long time and stayed for Mass. She became a daily Mass-goer.
“I credit Father Mario for the fact I am Catholic,” she said. “He doesn’t preach with words. He preaches by example.”
Now a campus minister at Keene State in Keene, N.H., she said she “still looks at campus ministry here as a model.”
“The students run this ministry. He is there to guide them,” Donders said, adding that Father Mario has “an amazing ability to talk to all ages appropriately.”
“This place is such a relief from the rest of the campus,” she said. “You come in. It doesn’t matter what your major is. It doesn’t matter what your GPA is. It was a home away from home.”
Father Mario says 23 vocations to the priesthood or religious life have emerged from those who called the Georgia Tech Catholic Center home while in college or graduate school. Four current Atlanta archdiocesan priests are among them: Father Theodore Book, Father Terry Crone, Father Hargaden and Father Augustine Tran. In a few weeks, Rev. Mr. Neil Dhabliwala will be ordained a priest for Atlanta, another Tech graduate.
“But I had nothing to do with it. It’s the Holy Spirit—I mean that,” Father Mario said. “I pray for vocations every morning in my prayer. I make every effort to live the life that I professed 60 some years ago as a friar … prayer, adoration and penance.”
Father Book said he knew when he went to Tech that he wanted to become a priest, but Father Mario “was a very impressive example of what a priest can be, and his example strengthened my understanding of the priesthood.”
“It’s not so much that he did unusual things or had special programs,” Father Book said. “What was impressive was he lived with great simplicity and poverty of life. … It is a wonderful counter-example to the busyness that we often think is the best way of serving the Lord. He wasn’t busy and there weren’t lots of programs, but he lived very much for Jesus and that was obvious in everything he did. It made a much more powerful impression.”
“It is no program, no technique, but just holiness,” Father Book continued.
His Franciscan charism was also reflected in his care for the Catholic Center, which “is in exactly the condition it was in when they built it. He was very careful and kept it just so,” Father Book said.
“It’s not just that he keeps things neat, but he treats things as a gift of God, by taking care of things and using things properly. It was part of living the Franciscan charism of poverty.”
He believes the secret of the chaplain’s relationships with so many younger people is partly his great enthusiasm for life but mostly “because he honestly cares about them as individuals. He has a genuine interest in and concern for each one of them and people recognize that.”
Father Mario sat on the bench as chaplain for the football team and for men’s and women’s basketball teams. He was particularly honored in 1990 when he was made an honorary alumnus of Georgia Tech, recognition that was started by the students and affirmed by the university.
“I know nothing about football and basketball,” he said. “I was chaplain to be with the kids, that’s all. I kid you not. I know nothing. Just to be with them … that’s why I stuck with it.”
“I live right here. I am available to them 24 hours a day. … The kids know you are for them, with them, you give yourself to them.”
He spoke of his favorite saint, the impetuous Peter. “I love Peter because he loved the Lord,” Father Mario said. He chokes up a bit. Peter would not even let them crucify him right side up because he wasn’t worthy “to die like his master.”
The students know that about Father Mario. “You have been our shepherd. You’ve called us, and we have come,” they told him at the party after Mass. During Mass the music group sang about the Lord telling Peter, “do you love me? Feed my lambs.” Father Mario cried.
The community is commissioning a statue of St. Peter to put in the chapel for him.
“I don’t know what the big deal is,” Father Mario said before departing for a Franciscan priory in Florida. “I was here 38 years. I did my job. Let me go. Who would not have done a job like this?”