By ERIKA ANDERSON, Special to the Bulletin | Published July 10, 2014
ATLANTA—Msgr. James Fennessy’s booming Irish brogue and boisterous laugh are familiar sounds in the archdiocese. But those who know him best also know he has a softer, more prayerful side. It’s that pastoral quality that many parishioners credit with carrying them through some of the most difficult times in their lives.
Msgr. Fennessy celebrated his farewell Masses June 21 and 22 at St. Jude the Apostle Church, where he has served as pastor for the past 12 years. He is retiring from active ministry after 46 years as a priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Msgr. Joseph Corbett is the new pastor of St. Jude.
Originally from County Tipperary, Ireland, Msgr. Fennessy was ordained a priest for Atlanta in 1968, one of a large number of Irish priests drawn to serve in the South by the appeals of the legendary vocations priest, the late Msgr. P.J. O’Connor. During his years in the archdiocese, Msgr. Fennessy served at nine parishes, including his first assignment at Holy Cross Church in Atlanta and his first pastorate at St. Bernadette Church in Cedartown. Before coming to St. Jude, he served as pastor of St. John Neumann Church in Lilburn for 11 years and prior to that as pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Alpharetta and of St. John Vianney, which was then in Austell.
“In every parish I served, I experienced the wonderful support and prayers of the people of the archdiocese,” Msgr. Fennessy told St. Jude parishioners in his homily. “Being Irish, I couldn’t avoid the skirmishes, of course. But people made me part of their parish life, and part of their families’ lives, as well.”
Celebrating his final Masses at St. Jude on the feast of Corpus Christi, Msgr. Fennessy said, seemed especially fitting.
“One of the most wonderful things about God is his love and his mercy. He always brings us together as his brothers and his sisters in Christ,” he said. “To celebrate the Eucharist with you all is very much at the heart of my ministry. It gives meaning of what it is to be a priest—the most important prayer we pray is the Mass.”
When he traveled home to Ireland, he would often talk of how loved he felt by his parishioners.
“I have been made holy by your faith, by your sacrifices, by your holiness. When I would go home, I always told of the great love you had for your priests,” he said.
And even during times of struggle in parishes, there was always the Mass.
“No matter what other issues there were, the priesthood always came down to this feast day—to the Mass. I love welcoming you and your families to the Mass. I love to see a nice, full church,” he said.
Msgr. Fennessy said a blessing of the priesthood is to be present during times of great joy, such as weddings and baptisms, and during times of great sadness. He hopes his legacy is that he helped others become closer to God.
“Hopefully I have said something that helped a teenager with his or her relationship with God or helped someone who felt abandoned know that Jesus Christ loved him or her,” he said.
He is ready to retire, he said, because Christ calls all of us to serve in different ways throughout our lives. But he hopes to “assist others as long as God gives (him) breath.”
“Thank you all. You have made my priesthood such a joy these last 12 years. Wherever we are, even if we are not together, Jesus Christ brings us together through the Mass. Please pray for me, and know that I will always pray for all of you.”
At the end of Mass, Deacon Bob Riddett led the congregation in a prayer over the pastor and presented Msgr. Fennessy with gifts of golf clubs, a golf club membership and vestments.
“I hope the vestments will get much more use than the golf clubs,” Msgr. Fennessy joked. He was greeted with a standing ovation, and many, like Dana Harpring, left the church wiping away tears.
“I’ll miss his warmth,” she said. “He offered his love and compassion to my family at a time when we really needed him. Talking to him just feels like coming home.”
Her husband, John, agreed.
“He’s really been a fatherly figure for us,” he said. “And I just love to hear him laugh.”
Msgr. Fennessy’s laugh was a common theme for many interviewed, including Deacon Riddett, who joined the parish around the same time as Msgr. Fennessy.
“We will miss his laugh and his pastoral caring of everyone,” he said. “He brought a great sense of community and life to the parish.”
Alan Brown, director of music ministry for St. Jude, has known Msgr. Fennessy for years. He served as the music director at St. John Neumann Church and came to St. Jude because of his deep affection for the pastor. He said he would follow him anywhere.
“I would follow him to the pit of hell because I know Christ would be there—that’s how highly I think of him,” Brown said. “He singlehandedly restored my faith in the priesthood just by the way he lives his faith.”
Brown was especially grateful for Msgr. Fennessy’s support when his wife, Barbara, died after a battle with ovarian cancer.
“He was by my side the whole way,” he said. “I never once felt abandoned. He had me in his hands and in his heart the entire time.”
Brown still gets emotional when he talks about Msgr. Fennessy celebrating Mass in his wife’s hospice room.
“It was the most powerful Mass I’ve ever been to, yet it was so simple. As most people know, he has a very loud voice. You can hear him everywhere. But that day, he used what I call his inside prayer voice,” he said. “When he is deep in prayer, he gets very quiet, very peaceful and very thoughtful.”
Msgr. Fennessy has not just been supportive of St. Jude the Apostle Church, but also of St. Jude the Apostle School. Principal Patty Childs said she will miss Msgr. Fennessy “terribly.”
“He is a wonderful priest and a very special man. (Msgr. Fennessy’s) laugh says a lot about him—genuine, happy, warm, approachable, friendly, funny, kind, smart, and Spirit-filled—a man of faith,” she said. “He listens not just with his ears but with his heart.”
Childs said it has been her “absolute honor” to have served as principal of the school under his pastorate.
“He is incredibly supportive of Catholic schools—most especially our school,” she said. “He has consoled our losses, shared in our shortcomings, and celebrated our successes with love throughout his time as our pastor.”