By NICHOLE GOLDEN, email@example.com | Published February 6, 2014
ALPHARETTA—Father Austin Fogarty, a son of Ireland, first began his service to the people of the Archdiocese of Atlanta as assistant pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas in Alpharetta in 1981.
A devoted prison chaplain, and pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas, Father Fogarty, called Father Austin by those he ministered to, died Jan. 15 at Emory University Hospital Midtown in Atlanta surrounded by family and friends. He was 61.
“He’s come full circle,” said the priest’s brother, Richard Fogarty of Dublin, Ireland. “He’s finally finished where he started.”
Hundreds of people filled St. Thomas Aquinas Church the evening of Jan. 22 for a vigil service for Father Austin. The open casket bearing his body was framed by a Knights of Columbus honor guard as one by one his parishioners and his friends, his fellow priests and his family members knelt to pray there for a few moments. A pianist and flutist played quietly.
Deacon Steve Beers from St. George Church, Newnan, and Deacon Norm Keller, active in prison ministry, led the vigil service. Father Austin was St. George’s pastor for 10 years.
“There was never a time in all the time I have known Austin Fogarty that he ever thought of himself first or more important or even important at all,” Deacon Beers said.
The priest pushed himself to reach people in need of God’s love, the deacon said, even celebrating all the liturgies of the Easter Triduum in 2003 at St. George Church when it turned out, on Easter Monday, that he had experienced a heart attack.
In his ministry to those in prison, “Austin couldn’t slow down in trying to help them. … He rejoiced every time one of them would ask for baptism and the sacraments, sometimes making it happen hours before their final breath,” said the deacon.
On Jan. 23, Father Austin’s family, his brother priests, many deacons, and parishioners of the six churches he served, returned to the Alpharetta parish for the funeral Mass.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, principal celebrant of the Mass, offered thanks to God for the priest’s “generous ministry.”
Deacon Beers was also the homilist for the funeral Mass.
“All these people… all this fuss. Wouldn’t he hate it?” said the deacon.
Each person who met the priest, said Deacon Beers, surely felt as if they were Father Austin’s best friend. This was because he had a way of caring, through listening and empathizing with all.
“In large part, probably, because no matter what problem was laid before him, he’d been there, done that and had the T-shirt,” said Deacon Beers.
Whether it was visiting death row inmates at Georgia’s Diagnostic and Classification Center in Jackson, or participating in the annual Jan. 22 pro-life events, Father Austin was working to bring Christ’s love to others.
“Everything he did was for the fulfillment of God’s promise and carrying that message to those who need it—all of us,” said Deacon Beers.
Preaching with a ‘happy meal’
The deacon also spoke of Father Austin’s love for families and their children.
On first Communion days, Father Austin would bring a fast food kids’ meal for his special homily to teach them about the true “happy meal”—the Eucharist.
And for the children receiving blessings during Mass, he usually added an encouraging “good boy” or “good girl.”
Father Austin would occasionally scoop up an urchin running loose during Mass. “Pope Francis has nothing on our Irish presbyter,” added Deacon Beers.
Father Mario Lopez, parochial vicar of St. Thomas Aquinas, had received Father Austin’s body into the church Jan. 22 for the vigil saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Have faith in God; have faith also in me.”
Deacon Beers said Father Austin’s life reaffirmed these very words because faith carried the priest through dark spots in life.
“When it might have seemed to those around him that one or another of the experiences in his life was ready to reduce his will to go on, Divine Mercy would overshadow him and offer him help, and each time Austin Fogarty would accept that help,” he said.
Deacon Beers concluded with a traditional Irish blessing.
During the presentation of gifts, Father Austin’s family brought several items to place on a table near the altar. The gifts included photos of his parents, his chalice, a plastic rosary representing the kind he would take to prisoners, his Irish and American passport representing love of his adopted country, the Irish flag and Celtic cross in recognition of his roots, and his missal.
Father Austin’s melodic lilt added beauty to the music of each Mass he celebrated and the music of the funeral Mass included some of his favorites—“The Prayer of St. Francis,” “Pan de Vida,” and “Here I Am, Lord” as well as the Celtic Song of Farewell.
Following Mass, Richard Fogarty spoke about his brother.
“We didn’t come prepared for this,” said Fogarty. He added that he is comforted that Father Austin was to be laid to rest at Arlington Cemetery in Sandy Springs so that his parishioners could continue their relationship with him.
“He was human, and he had his faults. They enhanced him in his ministry,” said Fogarty. He also spoke of his brother’s prison ministry saying it was “paramount.”
Fogarty concluded his remembrance of his brother by praying the Our Father in Gaelic.
Archbishop Gregory said he does not often get to see the priests in their daily work when they are comforting the sick or preparing a couple for marriage.
The archbishop said that one notable exception is the opportunity he had to witness Father Austin visiting prison inmates.
“I saw how he treated them,” said Archbishop Gregory.
He added that this action represents the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, which teaches that in caring for the needs of those who suffer, one ministers to the Lord himself.
“I take great comfort in that,” said the archbishop.
‘He believed Matthew 25’
Deacon Dick Tolcher, head of the archdiocesan prison and jail ministry, knew Father Austin for many years and for a time met with him for spiritual direction. He also said the priest’s dedication to men in prison was based on the words of Christ in the Gospel.
“He believed that Matthew 25 was real and that he was going to be judged by Matthew 25 and that part of that was visiting the prisons. … That was a real belief,” Deacon Tolcher said.
The gift Father Austin had ministering there was unmistakable, the deacon added.
“You recognize your skills and you recognize your impact on people, and I think he recognized he was really making an impact on people’s lives,” he said.
“Every Thursday he would drive faithfully (to the Jackson prison) from wherever he was. He would say one Mass in the general population and one on death row. Many, many converts, he baptized. He was very, very active in ministry with men on death row and those scheduled for execution. He got very close to those guys,” Deacon Tolcher said.
“He really knew inmates. … He knew the inmate culture. He also was very popular with the prison personnel,” he said. “He was so down to earth. He really followed the church’s teachings, but he would leave room for a person’s doubts. The inmates loved him.”
When he celebrated the sacraments, like baptism, “he would stay with the rubric, but he made it so personal,” the deacon said. “He would make sure they were well-versed and well catechized. He believed in the ritual and the beauty of the ritual.”
Another quality he had was commitment to his priesthood, the deacon said.
“I don’t think he ever doubted his vocation,” Deacon Tolcher said.
In late fall of 2013, Father Austin let Deacon Tolcher know that because of his health he would have to stop visiting the prisons and the deacon would need to find a priest to replace him.
“It was a respiratory issue. … He said he did not have the strength and could not risk serious infection,” Deacon Tolcher said.
Auxiliary Bishop Luis Zarama celebrated a memorial Mass for Father Austin Jan. 27 at St. George in Newnan. Father Henry Atem, pastor of St. George, and other priests concelebrated the Mass. Msgr. Hugh Marren of All Saints Church, Dunwoody, delivered the homily.
Msgr. Marren said while in seminary he often visited cemeteries to study gravestones. He spoke about the dash between Father Austin’s May 18 birthdate and the date of his death. He recited the Linda Ellis poem, “The Dash” on how people spend their lives—the time in between those two dates.
Father Austin must have spent it “very well, and very wisely” based on how many people attended the prayer vigil and Masses, he noted.
Msgr. Marren also talked about Father Austin seeing life from God’s perspective instead of his own, answering the call to the priesthood.
In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he wrote, “I have competed well; I have finished the race;I have kept the faith.”
Msgr. Marren used this Scripture to illustrate Father Austin’s own fidelity, saying it doesn’t mention that the runner had to rest, or that he fell down and got back up, or that he even won the race, just that he kept going and finished.
“God Bless America,” which Father Austin liked to sing in his morning Masses, was the recessional hymn for the memorial Mass. Richard Fogarty and his wife, Ann, attended with longtime friends of the priest.
While driving to Newnan for the Mass, Bishop Zarama found himself behind a school bus. At one point a woman was wildly waving at a stop and Bishop Zarama found himself wondering what she was doing. Finally, a boy got off the bus and ran to embrace his mother.
“It’s a beautiful image of how God waits for us,” said Bishop Zarama, thinking of Father Austin embracing his heavenly Father. “The Lord is waiting for us.”
Gretchen Keiser also contributed to this story.