Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


St. Mary’s, Rome, Comes Together For Father Miceli

By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published December 24, 2009

It was a cold, raw December day outside, but not inside St. Mary’s Church, where a parish of people crowded together Dec. 12 in shared remembrance of their former pastor, listening to music he loved, sheltered in the structure carefully renovated under his care, welcoming his family and friends, and taking comfort that this day of farewell was also the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“I think it is just as well” Father James A. Miceli “didn’t have to say goodbye completely to St. Mary’s in his lifetime, but instead it is St. Mary’s that is saying goodbye to him,” said Marist Father Joel Konzen in his homily at the funeral Mass.

Father Miceli “was in his element in the swirl of parish life” and “St. Mary’s in Rome was Father Jim’s piéce de résistance,” said the priest, a friend since their seminary days.

“To look around is to see everywhere a remnant of his keen eye, his style, his passion for excellence . . . his concern for la comunidad Hispana.”

The pastor of St. Mary’s for 19 years, Father Miceli had retired six months ago, but continued to live in Rome. He died on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, at the age of 60 while in Minnesota for medical care. Several friends he spoke with a few days earlier, including Father Konzen, said that he told them he was placing himself completely in the care of Mary.

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, speaking at the end of Mass, recalled the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the words spoken by Mary to St. Juan Diego in the 1500s. “Am I not here as your Mother?”

“I think on Tuesday (Dec. 8), that’s what she said to Jim,” he said.

A native of Champaign, Ill., Father Miceli was ordained a priest for the Atlanta Archdiocese in May 1975, after studying at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio and St. Meinrad College in Indiana and at Notre Dame Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in New Orleans.

The Scripture, “if God is for us, who can be against us,” served “as a sort of watchword for Jim throughout the years,” Father Konzen said. “God tries us and then we pray he finds us, despite our failings, worthy of himself. … Father Jim was inclined toward God in his service as a priest and in his overarching generosity.”

While in the early years of his priesthood he was asked to serve in church administration, he needed to be in ministry with people and it was there that he flourished, Father Konzen noted.

In his retirement letter to the parish Father Miceli wrote, “I love St. Mary’s. It is where I have spent the best years of my life! My friends are all here, my work, my memories, everything and everybody that I love and value are here. You have given me all a person could ever desire in life and more. I have been the most fortunate and blessed person—far beyond what I expected or deserved.”

Well before the funeral Mass began, the church was filled, along with every overflow area. Knights of Columbus stood at the ready to assist at Mass. Father Patrick Kingery, who served at St. Mary’s years ago as a seminarian and became the pastor six months ago, was the principal celebrant of the Mass, while Archbishop Gregory was seated in the sanctuary. Some of Father Miceli’s favorite pieces of music—“Gabriel’s Oboe” from “The Mission” and the meditation from the opera “Thaïs”—gently and quietly resonated from the choir loft overhead where it was evident a love of music had been one of the common bonds between the priest and his people.

Carol Black, his personal secretary for 10 years, said this was one of the ways parishioners could show their appreciation for Father Miceli and what he had meant to the parish.

“He was very generous and loving as a priest and as our friend. He was always there for us spiritually and he provided a lot of strengths through the hard times, the deaths. He has been with us through the sorrows and joys of the last 20 years,” she said.

During his pastorate, the church was renovated and expanded and new architectural and liturgical elements were added, including a steeple, stained glass and a high altar. St. Mary’s School was also modernized and renovated and a new parish center was added. A garden he designed was recognized for landscape excellence.

“There’s not one place you can look at in this church and not see him,” said Black. “He has renovated and built and rebuilt. His touch is everywhere. People appreciated that about him. They appreciated his attention to detail. He was adamant that the historic part of the church remained. He added on, but he was very careful in doing so not to change the church.”

He also mentored many seminarians there as they prepared for priesthood. The parish is very much like a family, Black said, but Father Miceli was surprised by the way he was loved there.

“He was very, very humble. When he retired in June he was so overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and affection by the parishioners here. … He just didn’t see that he had touched so many lives.”

The congregation at the Mass included old and young, teenagers and families, Hispanics and non-Hispanics. Readings and music were in Spanish and English.

Marist Father Paul Hachey, judicial vicar of the provincial Court of Appeals, assisted at St. Mary’s on weekends. In his homily at the wake service on Dec. 11, he remembered the priest’s many God-given gifts in landscaping, architecture, liturgical design, but also his decision in his late 40s to take a sabbatical in Mexico and to continue to study the Spanish language for four weeks each summer in order to communicate with Spanish-speaking St. Mary’s parishioners.

“He also was a serious man,” Father Hachey said. “You did not ask Father Jim for his opinion unless you wanted the hard truth. We could count on him to be interested in what we thought. He listened while we stated our case. … We could always depend on him to hold us accountable for what we said we wanted to do and who we said we wanted to become.”

Archbishop Gregory, at the end of Mass, thanked the priest’s father, Tony, and other family members for “the gift of your son and brother, who became for us priest and brother and devoted servant of this church.”

When a pastor is assigned to a parish, it is meant to establish a life-giving relationship for the parish and the priest, the archbishop said.

In the case of Father Miceli and St. Mary’s, the relationship was “so deep that I was pretty sure I would never be able to move him,” he said, as the people laughed. “When I came to Rome, Georgia, I knew who the pope was here, too.”

“I extend my heartfelt condolences at the loss of one who loved you so deeply,” he said.

Following Mass, the procession went to a memorial garden just outside the church doors where the priest’s cremated remains were interred. The site is just in front of a statue of Mary. The priests sang the “Salve Regina” before moving away. Then parishioners filled the memorial garden, many crying and embracing one another. As the minutes passed, songs in Spanish began and Mother Teresa Bravo, the superior general of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart Ad Gentes, who came from Mexico for the funeral, spoke to those gathered about Father Miceli. She ended leading them in applause and shouting “Viva, Padre Miceli!”

Speaking later in Spanish, translated by Sister Beatriz, she said that he always told her he wanted to make one community in the parish including all people, Hispanic and non-Hispanic. Sisters from the order minister in Rome and in parishes in Calhoun and Buford. When Father Miceli went to Mexico each summer to study Spanish he would stay at their convent, celebrate Mass for the sisters and practice his Spanish with them, Mother Teresa said. He also assisted their work with the poor.

“He had lots of friends in Mexico, especially among the poor,” she said.

Hispanic parishioners “feel that Father Miceli was a very good priest, a very good friend, a very good pastor,” she said.