By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 3, 2011
Msgr. R. Donald Kiernan poked his head into the doorway to check on the kindergarteners as they practiced the rosary. This unexpected visitor asked if they were well behaved. The class of youngsters became quiet as he gently taught them to make the sign of the cross. Touch your forehead. Belly button. Left shoulder. Right shoulder. Hands together. And then he gave a blessing.
After a quarter of a century at this parish and over 60 as an active priest, the pastor of All Saints Church, Dunwoody, is retiring. He has been named “pastor emeritus” and will reside there.
Catholic Charities Atlanta is saluting his service at its fundraiser dinner on Thursday, March 3, with its Archbishop Donoghue Award. And on Tuesday, March 8, the Georgia General Assembly is to honor Msgr. Kiernan and has invited him to be recognized by the House of Representatives at 10 a.m., followed by the Senate.
He is modest about the recognition.
“I feel like a pious fraud. I haven’t done anything to deserve such a medal,” he said.
But Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory disagreed.
“Only in the eyes of God could possibly be numbered the specific moments when you have touched the lives of individuals, especially Catholics, giving them strength and hope, and the knowledge that a good friend was rooting for them from the inside ranks of Heaven’s team,” wrote the archbishop in a letter announcing his retirement.
“You have had those countless opportunities, as a priest, and for over sixty years, at every opportunity, you have done good, for everyone,” said Archbishop Gregory.
Catholic Charities officials said Msgr. Kiernan’s leadership has encouraged All Saints Parish to embrace the needs of the women, men and children served by the organization.
Msgr. Kiernan’s compassion for the needy and selfless model of servant leadership has been a shining example for so many and it’s because of his unwavering spirit and leadership that Catholic Charities is recognizing him, according to a written statement from the organization.
Msgr. Kiernan was born on Dec. 28, 1924 and brought up in Taunton, Mass. Founded by members of the Plymouth Colony, it is one of the oldest towns in the country. He was the youngest of five children and his father worked as what today would be called an event organizer. Despite his decades in Atlanta, his accent betrays him. When he said carpet, he drops the ‘r’ and it comes out “caapet.”
During a recent morning, he wore a sweater stitched with “The Monsignor” as he had breakfast of oatmeal, toast and coffee. Cream only.
His goal as a young man was to be a teacher. He attended Providence College during World War II but left before graduating to finish his studies at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. (In 1991, he was awarded his bachelor’s degree after Providence College leaders determined his life’s work earned him this degree.)
At the Maryland seminary, he enrolled without the endorsement of a diocese. It’s a situation that likely couldn’t happen today, he said.
“I went on my own and paid my own tuition. I was a good catch for the diocese,” he said.
He was a priest of the then Diocese of Savannah-Atlanta and ordained in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross by Cardinal Richard Cushing in May 1949. His first assignment was as assistant rector of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah. His first pastorate was at St. Peter’s Church in LaGrange. Named a monsignor in 1969, Msgr. Kiernan served as the pastor of seven other parishes until he was assigned as pastor of All Saints in 1985. He was also editor of The Georgia Bulletin for 13 years.
In his office, shirts with law enforcement patches fill his closet. And on the walls hang many of his awards, including the Protonotary Apostolic, which is the highest rank of monsignor, he received in 1979, the honorary doctorate in public administration from Biscayne College in Miami and an honorary doctorate of law from Georgia State University. A letter from the FBI director also hangs on the wall.
Msgr. Kiernan founded the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, serving as its director and chaplain for over 20 years. He has a long history with the Georgia State Patrol, the DeKalb County Police Department, the local division of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Boy Scouts and the Knights of Columbus.
He has been the spiritual leader of the All Saints Church community for 25 years and is only its second pastor. It grew from some 700 families when he arrived to close to 2,300.
The growth happened by the grace of God, not anything he did, he said.
“There’s a wonderful spirit in the parish,” he said.
“There’s not a happier priest in the United States than I am,” he said.