By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 2, 2012
Msgr. Walter J. Donovan died on Sunday, July 22, leaving a lasting legacy of schools and parishes in the Atlanta Archdiocese and the state. He was 96.
A native of Little Falls, N.Y., Msgr. Donovan arrived in Georgia when it was still a mission state with an estimated 44,000 Catholics and he was the 30th diocesan priest. His ministry extended for 68 years.
Ordained in 1944 after graduating from Catholic University of America in Washington and St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester, N.Y., he served his first years as a priest in the Savannah area and then was assigned to Dublin, Ga., as pastor of Immaculate Conception Church.
His first assignment in North Georgia took him to St. Joseph Church in Athens where he remained as pastor for 13 years, and during which time the Diocese of Atlanta came into existence. At the time, the parish covered 12 counties and included overseeing the Catholic community at the University of Georgia.
During his tenure, with his leadership, the parish community established in 1949 the first accredited Catholic elementary school in the state.
St. Joseph School opened in 1949 with 35 students in first through sixth grades. He made space for the school on the first floor of the rectory and moved his living quarters to the second floor. Five years later, grades seven and eight were added and enrollment expanded to 170 students.
The school will move to a new $6 million campus this fall.
A second school bears his name in Athens, Monsignor Donovan High School, an independent Catholic high school.
“He is an iconic symbol for us. He lives with us daily,” said Patrick Yuran, the principal at the 130-student school. “Msgr. Donovan has been the common thread for Catholics in the Athens community.”
The high school marks its 10th anniversary in the upcoming year and Msgr. Donovan’s spring birthday will be a school and community celebration, he said. And earlier in the school year, the students and faculty will commemorate his life with Mass celebrated by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, said Yuran.
Msgr. Donovan often traveled to celebrate Mass for small groups of Catholics living in rural pockets of the parish. The number of Catholics increased as soldiers brought home Catholic wives from Italy and England following World War II.
In an interview in 2006, he recalled how some families were only able to attend Mass once a month when a priest visited. “The rest of the Sundays the women would say the rosary with their families and teach the catechism.”
He credits these women with sustaining and aiding in the establishment of the church.
“There were itinerant priests, but in all the regions of Georgia, there were a couple of stalwart women who would teach the catechism—that was true of Elberton, Hartwell, Monroe, Madison. These women organized everything and got things going.”
While in Athens, Msgr. Donovan directed efforts to resettle more than 150 families from central Europe, the Ukraine and Russia who had been displaced during World War II. He turned the large parish rectory into short-term accommodations for the newcomers.
Tony Totis was one of the hundreds who attended Sacred Heart Church, Atlanta, in 2004 to celebrate Msgr. Donovan’s 60th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood.
The Totis family had been helped by Msgr. Donovan when they emigrated from Italy to Georgia in 1951.
Tony Totis said, “He was just one of those who led by his action.”
The two had a standing weekly lunch appointment at Mary Mac’s Tea Room in downtown Atlanta. They had been going there for years. In fact, Totis said a portrait of the priest hangs on the restaurant’s wall of fame.
“He’d give you the shirt of his back. He never cared for material goods,” said Totis, who said he spent some time in prayer with the priest’s remains before he was taken to the funeral home.
In his own way to help racial integration, Msgr. Donovan participated in an interracial group of Catholics called the St. Martin’s Human Relations Council, which visited parishes educating other Catholics on civil rights.
After serving in Athens, Msgr. Donovan went on to be the founding pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in southwest Atlanta and, in 1971, became pastor at St. Thomas More Church in Decatur.
Msgr. Donovan served at other parishes, including St. John the Baptist Cathedral, Savannah; Good Shepherd Church, Cumming; St. Anna Church, Monroe; and Sacred Heart, Atlanta.
In 1994 Pope John Paul II named him a prelate of honor, with the title of monsignor. He was living since 2006 at St. George Village retirement community in Roswell.
One of seven children, Msgr. Donovan was predeceased by his four sisters and two brothers. He is survived by 11 nieces and nephews.
A vigil service and rosary were to be held at All Saints Church, Dunwoody, on the evening of July 31, followed by the funeral Mass there on Aug. 1 and burial at Arlington Cemetery in Sandy Springs.
Memorial contributions can be made to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home, 760 Pollard Blvd., SW, Atlanta, GA 30315 or to Monsignor Donovan Catholic High School, 590 Lavendar Road, Athens, GA 30606. Condolences may be sent to the family in care of Polly Callison, 2034 Dunwoody Club Way, Dunwoody, GA 30338.