By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 24, 2011
Six lighted white candles surround the open, wooden casket of retired Atlanta Archbishop John F. Donoghue. A kneeler for people to pay their respects is at the foot of the casket. A 24-hour honor guard from the Knights of Columbus and the Knights of Peter Claver stand in their regalia of plumed hats and drawn swords.
Throughout the vigil, scores of people visit the downtown Sacred Heart Basilica during solemn prayers and liturgies. And throughout the day and night, people trickle in on their own.
Rex Arull is alone in the basilica on Thursday, Nov. 17, at 1:30 a.m.
Arull drove from his Smyrna home in the middle of the night, unsure if the church would be open. If not, the 36-year-old energy consultant says he planned to pray outside. Instead, he kneels in an empty pew reserved for friends and family. He prays the rosary.
The archbishop has on purple vestments and miter, and the white pallium, a liturgical garment which was a gift from Blessed John Paul II that symbolizes the archbishop’s service in the Atlanta Archdiocese and his unity with the pope, and rosary beads in his hand.
His body rests in a hand-carved casket, which was given by his friend, Father Thomas Hennessy.
The body of Archbishop Donoghue, who guided the archdiocese from 1993 to 2004, entered the basilica on Wednesday, Nov. 16.
Olga Myers, of All Saints Church, Dunwoody, waited. Myers says she came “to say farewell to my dear friend of many years.”
Myers, her husband, and nearly 30 other friends and family members fill the entryway of the historic red brick Peachtree Street church. It is the same church where in 1995 the archbishop celebrated Mass attended by Blessed Teresa of Kolkata.
“I was shaking in my knees. He was such a love. He was such a humble servant,” she says.
Others knew the Catholic spiritual leader as a grandfatherly type, one who wasn’t above a practical joke, like locking all the doors of a house to keep the homeowners out.
“If ever he gave you a hard time, he’d always say, ‘But I’m the archbishop,’” says Barrett Elkins, a family friend and pallbearer. “If you didn’t know he was the archbishop, you’d think he was a regular guy.”
Another joke he shares: “You look great today, Archbishop.”
“I can’t say the same about you,” he would quip.
Elkins, 29, drove the archbishop at his insistence to Eucharistic adoration prayer late at night. The late hour made it hard for the archbishop to stay awake. Elkins, a university sports coach who lives in Florida, asked him whether an earlier prayer time would be better.
“It means more if you are having trouble,” he recalls the archbishop telling him.
Dennis Fitzgerald braves the weather on his bike from East Point to pay his respects. He didn’t really know the man, but admires him for guiding the 69-county archdiocese.
Fitzgerald says the archbishop followed a strong leader, Archbishop James Lyke, a Franciscan.
The Catholic community was very dynamic during the archbishop’s time, which meant big tasks, he says. “It took somebody special to do that, and he did that,” says Fitzgerald, who attends St. John the Evangelist Church, Hapeville.
Edward Donoghue, who is 81 and the only surviving brother of the archbishop, sits in his wheelchair at the foot of the altar. The two brothers shared time together two weeks ago.
“We just reminisced about old times. He was always interested in what was going on with my children. I brought him news of the family,” says Donoghue, who lives in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C.
He says his brother would want to be remembered as “a builder of the church.”
On Friday, Nov. 11, the archbishop died. And Father Hennessy, the chaplain at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home, spent the last hours with him. The archbishop ordained him in 1996.
Father Hennessy calls it a “holy death,” with the archbishop surrounded by loved ones in the home of a long-time aide.
When the archbishop lost the ability to swallow, Father Hennessy says he dipped his finger in the Precious Blood and gave the archbishop a few drops on his tongue.
Friends remembered him as a simple man. Father Hennessy says on a trip to Rome he once bought his friend a new vestment to replace one that was too worn.
“He didn’t really care about much. He wanted to be faithful. He was such a simple man,” he says. “He just wanted to serve God.”
At Wednesday evening vespers, Msgr. Tom Kane remembers his boyhood friend as one who never wanted to be in the spotlight. Msgr. Kane is a retired priest in the Archdiocese of Washington.
In fact, the archbishop at first declined the request to serve as a bishop because it meant he’d be away from a longtime friend, Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle, who was in failing health. But the cardinal told the archbishop it would be improper to decline the request to serve from Pope John Paul II.
The archbishop strived to be a “faithful shepherd,” he says.
As the Atlanta archbishop, he faced “a growing Catholic population, which made its demands for churches, high schools and grade schools, medical facilities, homes for the retired, and more priests to respond to these growing needs.”
“I think you can attest to his effectiveness in each of these endeavors,” Msgr. Kane says.
“His primary concern daily was as a caring shepherd of his flock. He came here, saw what had to be done and he did it. Can we say ‘Amen’ to that?”