By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 6, 2009
Growing up in the Unitarian Universalist faith, Father Stewart Wilber wasn’t exposed to liturgy as Catholics know it. But it was the celebration of the Mass that drew him to the faith in his mid-30s and into the life as a priest.
“I fell in love with the Mass. I wanted to say Mass. I still am in love with the Mass. That’s never faded,” said Father Wilber, who marks his 18th anniversary as a priest this year.
Today, Father Wilber works at the Village of St. Joseph Counseling Center, an arm of Catholic Charities Atlanta. He is the only priest among the staff of more than a dozen counselors.
Serving in the role since 2007, Father Wilber said some clients enjoying speaking with him since he is a priest.
Asked how the roles of counselor and priest differ, Father Wilber described being a priest as “alter Christus (Latin for ‘another Christ’) but my image of counseling is Simon of Cyrene (the man who helped Jesus carry his cross).”
Decorating his office at 600 West Peachtree St. are a print of the Laughing Jesus with his head thrown back and mouth opened as if pictured after hearing a funny joke. On another wall is an excerpt from poet T.S. Elliot’s Four Quartets: “And all shall be well and/All manner of thing shall be well/When the tongues of flame are in-folded into the crowned knot of fire, and the fire and the rose are one.” Pictures of his parents and sisters sit on a bookshelf.
Joe Krygiel, the CEO of Catholic Charities, said Father Wilber’s unique background makes a valuable contribution to the service.
“Father Stewart brings his pastoral influence and experience as a member of the clergy and former parish pastor, and his knowledge and skill in handling substance abuse issues to our counseling services. He is a very energetic, kind, and compassionate member of our counseling staff, and we are blessed to have him with us,” Krygiel said in a statement.
Father Wilber grew up in Houston, the only boy among three girls. His father worked as a physician, and his mom returned to teaching once the children became teenagers. Before entering seminary, he managed public radio stations in big radio markets in Texas and California.
“People hear my voice and presume I was on the air. I was never on the air,” said Father Wilber with his deep voice.
It was during his mid-30s that Father Wilber was helped by a Dominican priest to become a Catholic. Later, he went to study at a Dominican seminary in California. He completed his simple vows with the Dominicans and more soul-searching ensued before he came to the archdiocese. A self-described “son of the South,” Father Wilber said he wanted to return to the region and live in a bustling city. He was one of three priests ordained in Atlanta in 1991.
After serving as a parish priest for 15 years, he took time off to go back to graduate school. He earned a master’s degree in social work at Fordham University with a certificate in substance abuse treatment. His interest stems from his more than 20 years of working with self-help groups and alcoholic priests. He passed the Georgia examination for social workers to serve as a counselor.
At the counseling program, Father Wilber was part of a team trying an innovative approach to curb teen substance abuse. The Porticus North America Foundation, a Catholic organization, gave a $70,000 grant in 2008 for a pilot program. It was to explore improving early intervention for teenagers exposed to substance abuse, as well as to help their families.
The program didn’t develop as planned. There was little response to the effort at community outreach, he said. The new goal is to raise awareness about the problem among teens in parish youth programs. And early signs suggest it may be more successful. There were eight presentations to teens and parents in parish youth programs during the spring. Father Wilber said there was a 73 percent improvement in knowledge of the problem.
In addition to serving as a counselor, he is helping archdiocesan schools focus on substance abuse concerns and other issues.