By ERIKA ANDERSON REDDING, Special to the Bulletin | Published December 10, 2015
ATLANTA—Peace and all good things.
That was the way Father Linus DeSantis, OFM Conv., signed his letters and emails. It was also the way he lived his life. The beloved priest died Dec. 1 after a massive heart attack in Syracuse, New York, where he was serving as the campus minister of the Alibrandi Catholic Center at Syracuse University. He was 72.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, and raised in Athol Springs, New York, Father DeSantis entered the St. Joseph Cupertino Novitiate of the Franciscan Friars Conventual in August 1961. He professed his vows in 1962 and was ordained to the priesthood in Albany, New York, May 22, 1971.
As a young priest, Father DeSantis served in various roles in education, including as a high school teacher, and later he was assistant principal and principal of Archbishop Curley High School in Baltimore and registrar and dean of admissions at Washington Theological Union in Silver Springs, Maryland. In the late 1980s, he became a campus minister at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury and started a lifelong mission to serve young adults.
In 1994, Father DeSantis came to the Archdiocese of Atlanta to serve as a parochial vicar at St. John Vianney Church in Lithia Springs. It was just two years before campus ministry called him again, this time at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw and Berry College in Rome. He was the first Catholic campus minister at KSU and helped establish the Catholic Center.
Khristina Followell and her sister, Melissa Simpson, met Father DeSantis while they were students at Berry. Both grew to know him as more than just a spiritual mentor.
“He was truly more than a priest, or a friend, but very much like a father figure to Melissa and me,” Followell said. “I remember him once telling us both that any man who desired our hand would have to be approved by him before (our parents). Father Linus was a gentleman who truly lived life to its fullest and did it with larger than life hugs, a big smile, a raised eyebrow and an even bigger laugh.”
His impact reached beyond the students he served as a campus minister. Nancy Von Hagel worked as Father DeSantis’ assistant at Kennesaw. She fondly remembered his quirky expressions, his booming voice, his habit of playing classical music a little too loudly and his deeply engaging homilies.
“I had never worked for a priest before so I don’t have anything to compare him to. But he was genuine and just like us. He’d be funny; he’d be angry; he’d be tired. But he was a good boss and an even better priest,” she said.
“Our front door was a revolving door of young and old. He always had time for everyone. He insisted upon answering the phone. He would say that it was usually for him so why should someone else bother to answer it and take a message. I worried that he didn’t relax enough. Especially when he would get sick—I think he may have missed one afternoon due to illness in all the years I worked for him,” she said.
Father DeSantis was known throughout the archdiocese for his spiritual direction and no-nonsense way of leading his flock. It was an approach that was filled with compassion and wisdom that led many closer to Christ on their spiritual journeys. He was the spiritual father of the To Encounter Christ young adult community, for which he led dozens of retreats. It was through TEC that many young adults first met Father DeSantis.
Janice Givens, who founded young adult ministry for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, said that Father DeSantis was the guiding force who revived TEC and helped it continue. It had started with a small group of young adults but fizzled when there wasn’t enough participation. Givens, Father DeSantis and a few other young adults traveled to West Virginia to a TEC retreat in an effort to reenergize the Atlanta program.
“With Father Linus’ support, it was started again. Without his support it never would have been able to start up. He was always available—supportive and encouraging,” Givens said. “He was Atlanta TEC.”
Matt Mihalek, a parishioner of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Alpharetta, attended his first TEC retreat 14 years ago. It was a journey that changed his life completely, and much of that had to do with Father DeSantis, who shared Mihalek’s sense of humor and accepted him for who he was. Mihalek said he started TEC as a “drug abuser and loner” who had very little faith in himself. But as Father DeSantis began to guide him all that changed.
“Always accepting, always my friend, he greatly shaped who I am today. This priest helped guide my wife into the faith and presided over our wedding. That was one of the greatest honors I have ever had,” he said. “As the years went on he became so much more than my priest, he was family. We talked deeper than most humans ever would comprehend, and all the while, even in my darkest moments, he believed in me.”
Rich Dittus first met Father DeSantis in the mid-1990s. Dittus shared his vision to build a Catholic liberal arts college in Georgia with Father DeSantis, who served as his spiritual director. While exploring that possibility, Dittus was offered a job at Ave Maria University in Florida. Father DeSantis’ encouragement of Dittus, he said, is what gave him the courage to move his family and start a new life there. Because of this influence, Dittus’ children, including a son who is a priest and a daughter who is a sister in religious life, also have strong faith lives.
“It is truly amazing to reflect back on how I might have not chosen to leave the comfort zone of my job as a math teacher and tennis coach at Blessed Trinity Catholic High School or our wonderful St. Peter Chanel Parish without the support of Father Linus in discerning God’s will for our lives,” Dittus said. “His encouragement and support as a Franciscan priest, role model, spiritual director and friend have made a significant impact on my life and on the life of my family.”
Young adults in Atlanta created a Facebook page to share memories of Father DeSantis. To date, there are more than 300 members from around the country who are sharing stories of the way Father DeSantis helped shaped their lives.
Father DeSantis’ Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated Dec. 5 at Assumption Church in Syracuse. Interment took place Dec. 7 in the Friars’ Plot of St. Stanislaus Cemetery in Baltimore. A memorial Mass was celebrated Dec. 7 in the Pope St. Linus Chapel at the Kennesaw State University Catholic Center.
For many who knew Father DeSantis, like Mihalek, Father DeSantis’ legacy will continue to live.
“I am honored to have known Linus DeSantis. I have been blessed with one of the most dearest friends I could have asked for. I have a good father in my biological one, but Linus is my father in faith.”