By ERIKA ANDERSON, Special to the Bulletin | Published October 30, 2014
ATLANTA—At Father Richard Tibbetts’ farewell reception at Holy Cross Church, 16-year-old Jennifer Guzdial waited to give her pastor a special gift to help him with his chosen retirement ministry.
Father Tibbetts had been especially kind to the young parishioner when she was questioning her faith during her confirmation journey.
“I had a lot of questions about religion,” she said. “I was really unsure if I wanted to be confirmed. But he told me that he’d meet with me and answer any questions that I had. He never talked to me like I was a child. He answered all my questions and didn’t judge me.”
With the help of Father Tibbetts, Jennifer did choose to be confirmed. And to thank him, she brought the pastor, who has expressed a desire to continue prison ministry in his retirement—a temporary tattoo of a cross—to give him some toughness, she joked. Her parents, Mark Guzdial and Barbara Ericson, are just happy their daughter had someone to turn to with her questions.
“He was willing to discuss things with her and meet her on her grounds without getting mad at her. He shepherded her through that confirmation process, just by having conversations with her,” Mark said.
Parishioners old and young joined Jennifer and her family to say goodbye to their pastor at all Holy Cross Masses Sept. 28.
Father Tibbetts, a native of Maine, was ordained in 1998 when he was 55. He’d spent 20 years teaching high school and six years working in psychotherapy—both roles that often came into play during his 16 years as a priest. His first assignment was as a parochial vicar at St. Joseph Church in Marietta, where he was introduced to prison ministry.
“I really liked it. I had some very powerful conversion experiences there,” he said. “You meet some good people. You also meet some con artists. But if they are at Mass, that’s what matters—you know you might be able to make a difference if they’re coming to Mass.”
After St. Joseph’s, he served his first pastorate at St. Mary Church in Toccoa, and its sister parish, St. Catherine Labouré Church in Jefferson. He then went on to serve his longest assignment as pastor of St. Theresa Church in Douglasville for more than eight years before moving to Holy Cross in 2009.
In his farewell to parishioners, Father Tibbetts said retirement was bittersweet.
“I will be leaving here with mixed feelings. I am looking forward to retirement. And I am looking forward to no longer being an administrator—that’s what I hate. Although, I don’t think I’ve done that bad of a job, but I don’t really like it. I’m really looking forward to just being a priest only,” he said.
He said in all his parishes, there have been headaches and heartaches, but there also have been joys.
“That’s true in your families, as well, isn’t it? That’s part of being human,” he said. “You know every single time someone complained to me … God was very good to me. He always sent me two or three other people to say ‘Thank you, Father, for what you are doing and what you have done.’ So I will very much miss being here, but I also go with wonderful memories.”
Holy Cross is an exceptionally diverse parish, Father Tibbetts said, and he expressed his joy about uniting parishioners from so many backgrounds.
“We have—not me—we—have accomplished an awful lot in this parish in the last five years. We’ve done some great things. We’ve become very much a united parish family with people from very different languages and nations, and it has become wonderful and very vibrant,” he said. “I know it will continue to be that way.”
Parishioner Mark Kelly heads up the parish’s blood donation ministry and said that Father Tibbetts was respected and loved by all who call their “United Nations” parish home.
“We have parish members from everywhere. Father Tibbetts made sure that every single person felt welcomed and that every single person felt important and felt God’s love,” he said. “He was also a person who would be honest with you and tell you when he was pleased and when he was not pleased. He would do that in a manner, however, that was non-confrontational and you always felt you had been heard.”
Father Tibbetts was also supportive of the numerous ministries of Holy Cross, Kelly said.
“He was a person who was always willing to listen, and he valued a parish that had active ministries. He was willing to let those ministries try new things,” Kelly said. “Holy Cross is one of the most active parishes I have witnessed. His willingness to listen and his willingness to encourage people to get involved made for a great parish atmosphere.”
Barb Garvin, director of religious education, said Father Tibbetts had a special love for the youth of the parish.
“Father Richard is a wonderful priest who cares deeply for his parishioners, especially the young church,” she said. “He spent time with the teens so that they knew they were cared about and loved by the church.”
The pastor asked Deacon Dick Suever to search for a way for parishioners to serve the poor outside the United States. This led to 99 people participating in two mission trips to Nicaragua, led by Amigos for Christ, the deacon said. A third trip is planned, and a partnership formed between the parish and Amigos for Christ.
Other parishioners and ministry leaders, like Caroline Camick, who leads the Pray for Priests ministry, were drawn to Father Tibbetts’ holiness.
“The very first time I experienced Father Tibbetts celebrating Mass, I was moved and convicted by a voice that said, ‘He is going to make us grow,’” she said. “I know, personally, I have grown from his influence, his expectations and his example. I’ve heard stories of at least five different people that he is the reason they felt drawn to convert to Catholicism. The years I taught in RCIA he constantly stopped by or dedicated time to teach the faith and reached out to those discerning the Catholic faith, to make them feel welcomed and heard. I’ve also heard many people say he greeted them in the gathering area when they were visiting churches and decided to join Holy Cross because of his warm greeting and availability.”
Kelly also said he will miss Father Tibbetts’ spirituality.
“I will miss his homilies. Very often challenging, and always from the heart. He had a way of making Mass a true community celebration. Great man. Great pastor,” Kelly said.