By GRETCHEN KEISER and STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writers | Published January 20, 2011
Stories and remembrances at a wake for Father Alan Dillmann sketched in so many different aspects of his life as a priest, which spanned more than 50 years: a love of all things German; a laugh as big as his size; activism in social justice and ecumenism as a young priest at Our Lady of Lourdes; and service to those with HIV/AIDS in the closing years of his active ministry.
Father Dillmann died on Jan. 7 at the age of 77 after a brief hospitalization. He had retired in 1998 and in recent years had been increasingly housebound.
The priest, affectionately known as “big Alan,” was remembered by friends and family members as a priest who welcomed people as they were and shared with them God’s unconditional love.
“He had a wondrous gift,” said Msgr. Henry Gracz, pastor of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, at the wake Jan. 16. “He was just sort of there in the midst of things. (But) his being there was very much rooted in the Gospel.”
As a chaplain at Grady Hospital, when he was active in ministry to those with HIV/AIDS, he met “many people so angry at the church,” said Danny Ingram. “Father Alan walked into the room and that was gone.”
“He broke those barriers right down and brought you back again,” said the parishioner of the Shrine.
“Father Alan reached out and welcomed people to come back into the church, people who had been hurt and excluded and felt like they were no longer a part of the body of Christ,” Ingram said.
“So many souls I don’t think anyone else could have touched, Father Alan did,” he said.
Others also spoke of how he helped them in a very meaningful way to experience the church.
Monika Wegner recounted how she went to him in 1983 asking if he could baptize her baby in German because her parents, who didn’t speak English, were coming from abroad for the baptism.
That began his outreach as a priest to German Catholics in metro Atlanta, celebrating the sacraments for them in a language he apparently learned from his family and his travels.
The highlight for about the next 10 years was that he celebrated Mass in German every Christmas Eve, “like we celebrated it in Germany,” the Buford resident said.
“To this day, my daughter says, Christmas is not the same anymore because we are not celebrating the German Christmas,” she said.
Robert Augustine said when he was a seminarian in 1967 and 1968, he spent summers at Our Lady of Lourdes Church when Father Dillmann was pastor there. They were called “Summers With a Purpose.”
“Those were very difficult times in America,” Augustine said, and in Atlanta, as the archdiocese lost Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan and then the community lived through the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
“Father Dillmann was at the heart of so much that was going on at that time,” he said. “He was a tremendous guy to be with, to learn from.”
In a written remembrance sent to The Georgia Bulletin, Augustine, now a member of All Saints Church in Dunwoody, called the priest “a gentle giant.”
“Those summers were truly memorable—voter registration drives, visiting homes in the neighborhood, working in Cabbagetown with VISTA volunteers, helping out at Emmaus House, attending Tenants United for Fairness meetings, and so many other activities that were very meaningful to a young seminarian,” he wrote. “Al Dillmann was supportive and helpful and, indeed, led the way in all of this. He was a bright light of faith in action.”
His cousin, Sally Saunders Huguley, said, “I think it is extremely appropriate his funeral Mass and burial will be on the Martin Luther King Holiday. Father Alan embraced the whole idea of Christ’s teaching to love one another. He marched with Dr. King. Certainly he was a model for being non-discriminatory, to embrace diversity and to love one another as Christ taught.”
Father Dillmann was born in New York City on June 2, 1933, the son of the late Wilham and Emily Callaghan Dillmann, and went to elementary and high school there. After two years at St. Bernard’s Minor Seminary in St. Bernard, Ala., he studied for six years at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, where he received his undergraduate degree and a degree in divinity. He later did some graduate study in religious education at Loyola University in Chicago.
He was ordained May 23, 1959, in Woodside, Queens, New York, by Atlanta Bishop Francis E. Hyland.
His early assignments in Atlanta included Christ the King Cathedral, Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. Jude. While teaching at St. Pius X High School in Atlanta from 1963 to 1967, he lived at Our Lady of the Assumption and later at Holy Cross Church, and he was the youth director for the diocese.
He was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church from 1967 to 1971 and then pastor of St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro from 1971 to 1975. He became priest in charge of the Buford-Cumming missions in 1975, and as the area’s Catholic population developed he became the first pastor of Good Shepherd Church in Cumming in 1980. His last pastorate was Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta, where he served from 1981 to 1987.
It was as pastor of Holy Spirit making hospital visits in 1987 that he met two men with AIDS at West Paces Ferry Hospital. His concern for the needs of those dying of AIDS led to a ministry that became the center of the next 11 years of his priesthood, as he took on the role of chaplain at the AIDS Clinic at Grady Hospital and Fulton County Jail and became the first chairman of the then-Archdiocesan Task Force on AIDS. Among the efforts of the task force were education programs offered in parishes that informed people about the then little known syndrome and gave advice in setting up parish AIDS ministries. He was assigned to the Shrine throughout this time as a parochial vicar.
Following retirement, he was briefly an Army chaplain in Germany.
Family, friends and more than 50 priests took part in the funeral Mass celebrated by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory at the Cathedral of Christ the King on Monday, Jan. 17.
Father Dillmann “managed to witness a great many changes during the more than five decades that he exercised Christ’s priesthood,” said Archbishop Gregory, as he saw five different popes, eight different presidents, nine governors and seven bishops or archbishops of Atlanta.
“None of those changes seemed to disturb him,” the archbishop added. “He understood the reassurance that was his, and remains our own, because he believed that the Lord would destroy death forever.”
Throughout his varied assignments and amidst the ever-changing backdrop of Atlanta, Father Dillmann remained committed to a life dedicated to God.
“A priest must be a man whose life is anchored in the Lord,” the archbishop said. “The Lord’s priest . . . must be constant in his resolve to care for the Lord’s flock, according to the tradition of the Apostles,” he said.
“Father Dillmann was secure in his own confidence in Christ’s promises and the demand that he live in union with those promises.”
The Mass was followed by burial in the section of Arlington Memorial Park in Sandy Springs dedicated to priests and bishops of the Atlanta Archdiocese.
Father Dillmann is survived by his many cousins.
Donations in his memory can be made to the Archdiocese of Atlanta, 680 West Peachtree St., N.W., Atlanta, GA 30308, or to The Living Room, Inc., 341 Ponce de Leon Ave., N.E., Atlanta, GA 30308.