By ERIKA ANDERSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published September 13, 2012
Stuart Utterback defied the odds from the moment he was born.
Stuart was gregarious, well liked. He loved being involved in his parish as an altar server. He lived his life with joy. Stuart was special.
Stuart, 61, died Aug. 27. When Stuart was born with Down syndrome in 1951, doctors told his parents their son would not live more than five years. But Stuart proved them wrong, touching others’ lives with his faithful spirit for decades. Many of those who were inspired by Stuart attended his funeral Mass at St. Jude the Apostle Church Aug. 31.
Father Richard Morrow, former pastor of St. Jude, celebrated the Mass, along with Msgr. James Fennessy, current pastor.
“Stuart would have a big smile on his face to see all of you here for his graduation—his graduation into heaven,” Father Morrow said in his homily.
Stuart was an active member of St. Jude’s Special Religious Education (SPRED) Ministry, founded by the late Toni Miralles. And for more than 40 years, he also attended the ministry’s annual retreat weekend, now named Toni’s Camp in Miralles’ honor. One of Stuart’s greatest loves, Father Morrow said, was assisting at Mass as an altar server.
“When Stuart was in his altar boy outfit, he was so happy, so devout,” Father Morrow said. “Stuart was a blessing—a gift.”
In a 1997 story in The Georgia Bulletin, Stuart’s mother, Berenice, said he wanted to become an altar server since 1969 when he was 18 and received the sacraments of penance, first Communion and confirmation from Atlanta Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan. But she said it was the confidence of Toni Miralles in Stuart that led to his becoming an altar server, first at Masses for those with disabilities and then at parish Masses, starting in the 1980s.
Mary Higginbotham, a longtime St. Jude parishioner who began volunteering at Toni’s Camp as a teenager, said Stuart was a fan of the spotlight, and was very particular about his altar server duties.
“He was very persnickety about ringing the bells during Mass. That was his part—no one else’s,” she said. “But he loved being the center of attention. If there was a camera around, Stuart wanted his picture taken.”
Pat Tweed, who directs the SPRED program at St. Jude, remembered Stuart as a loving soul.
“One year I was at the parish picnic and had a long conversation with Stuart,” she said. “I remember thinking that Stuart was not only my student, but my friend. Even though Stuart wasn’t high functioning, he had more ability with socializing than you can imagine.”
Msgr. David Talley, pastor of St. Brigid Church in Johns Creek, and the chaplain of Toni’s Camp, talked about a photo that hangs outside of his office. The picture, taken at the 2005 Toni’s Camp weekend, shows happy campers and counselors wearing bright yellow shirts. Stuart is sitting in his wheelchair next to Msgr. Talley.
“Stuart is shown with his hands holding my arm. In it, you can see that we were buddies,” he said. “We were buddies. Stuart and I were the same age. We both had bald heads. Both of us were short. Both of us had gained a pound or two, year by year. But in this bright, sun-washed snapshot of redemption, you don’t notice those kinds of things. If you stand back and gaze on this framed photo, it becomes a kind of icon—with Christ’s love for us shining in the faces of all who are sitting together as a family—as the Church is meant to be.”
Stuart was laid to rest at Arlington Cemetery in Sandy Springs. He is survived by his father, S. Keith Utterback, and his three sisters, Ann Walsh, Susie Utterback and Karen Utterback, and extended family. His mother, Berenice Utterback, predeceased him. Donations can be made in his memory to the St. Jude SPRED Ministry, Attention: Pat Tweed, 7171 Glenridge Drive, Sandy Springs, GA 30328.