By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published July 10, 2014
THOMSON—Father Stephen Lyness has changed his ministry from the hustle and energy at Atlanta’s Georgia State University to the unhurried pace of small town Georgia.
After nearly a decade working on the downtown campus with its 25,000 undergraduates, Father Lyness has taken up his new position as pastor of St. Joseph Church, Washington, and Our Lady, Queen of Angels Church, Thomson. There are about 170 registered families at the two parishes. He has also been appointed the guardian of Purification Station Church, Sharon, an historic church needing preservation that no longer has a local congregation. It is his first pastorate.
“I came from a small town. I grew up in a small town. Thomson is a small town. It’s a beautiful small church,” he said recently.
Still unpacking his boxes, he’s getting to know the parishes and its people. He noticed immediately how a “symphony of light” shines into the sanctuary of Queen of Angels Church, an A-frame church on a campus with other parish buildings.
A native of Northern Ireland, the 46-year-old became an American citizen in 2008. The priest, who was ordained in 1998, relaxes by cruising local roadways on his Yamaha Road Star motorcycle.
“I’m looking forward to learning about them, and hopefully, they’ll learn about me and not judge a book by its cover,” he said.
On campus, Father Lyness created links with students, but also worked to make sure students connected with each other.
“He would hang out with the students. They enjoyed him. He’s a great one for storytelling,” said Rudy Schlosser, president of the Catholic Student Association at Georgia State and full-time campus minister there.
Father Lyness said he enjoyed making connections in the diverse university’s Catholic community. Over a dinner of pizza, students could learn about how the faith is lived around the globe, from native African students to Asian students working on their post-graduate degrees, he said.
Father Lyness said he wanted to help students to mature in their faith. Just as they were growing in their academic studies, he said, they could study theology, philosophy and the history of the church.
Early on, Father Lyness was told by another priest how “GSU is a parish, among itself,” with spiritual and other needs of students, faculty and administrators. The campus ministry worked to serve this community, with Mass and by organizing students to be together at World Youth Days and on campus, and serving others in need.
The other Christian communities at the university and the administrators welcomed the Catholic presence on campus, he said. Indeed, the ministry worked with the catering services to keep food from being wasted. The ministry delivered food donations from the campus to the nearby Shrine of the Immaculate Conception where it was given to women and men living on the streets. Father Lyness said he is proud this partnership started during his time.
When students asked about the faith, he said: “Here’s what you can do: Live your faith. Go serve the hungry.”
Catholics for years had an itinerant existence on campus. The community would worship wherever an office could be reserved. But in 2012, the construction of a 26-seat chapel for the Catholic university community was a milestone of Father Lyness’ ministry. He brought in more than $10,000 of in-kind donations and money to convert a former sorority office into a permanent place of worship for the community.
“I can’t think of a better legacy than that,” Schlosser said. “He’s always going to be welcome, that’s for sure.”
The faith needs of the GSU community in the fall are going to be part of the ministry of the new chaplain at Georgia Tech, Father Joshua Allen.
The new duties include an unusual situation in the archdiocese as the two parishes will share one pastor. Father Lyness is replacing a priest at each parish.
Father Lyness said his goal is to show the communities he is available to serve them. The early plan is he’ll continue to use both rectories, spending a night or two at each parish to be around for people and events. Also, he’ll share his phone number and email address widely so parishioners can get hold of him when he is out of the office.
“They are two small parishes, with a long history and active parishioners. Families are involved. That’s what I look forward to,” he said.