By GEORGIA BULLETIN STAFF | Published October 5, 2017
ATLANTA—Gretchen Keiser retired on Sept. 30 as editor of The Georgia Bulletin, having served under five archbishops for nearly four decades as a pillar of the Archdiocese of Atlanta’s communications.
Keiser feels privileged to have devoted her career to the Catholic press.
“The sense that this was a gift to me has never really left,” she said. “Certainly we’ve had difficult times over these 37 years, sometimes sorrow and loss and heartaches, but the overpowering sense I have is to be grateful to work with my training, my experience and skills and interests in writing and reporting in the Catholic press.”
A role model as a journalist and Catholic, Keiser likewise has inspired staff past and present to work prayerfully and joyfully with pride in spreading the Good News of Christ to the local Catholic community in north and middle Georgia. Through the decades colleagues admired Keiser for her scrupulous editing, incisive reporting and encyclopedic knowledge of theology and Atlanta church history.
Mary Anne Castranio said that Keiser’s dedication and expertise were an inspiration when Castranio became executive editor of the Georgia Bulletin some 14 years ago.
She said, “Gretchen’s journalistic guidance and personal example were an unexpected wonder of the job. Although I was technically her boss, she taught me extensively about being a journalist in the Catholic press and the importance of our work for God. For that I am utterly thankful.”
Former staff writer Erika Anderson Redding joined the newspaper at age 22 where Keiser helped her to find her voice as a reporter and to incorporate prayer into her work—and life. “I can remember late (really late!) deadline nights when Gretchen was going over the pages for the hundredth time—making sure no small detail was missed and no minor mistake became a major one. I always felt better knowing Gretchen was editing my story because I knew nothing would slip through the cracks,” Redding recalled. “Gretchen has always been our historian. She forgets nothing—no story, no priest, no diocesan employee and no significant event in the life of the church or The Georgia Bulletin.”
Finding a home in the Catholic press
A native of Pelham, New York, Keiser graduated from Connecticut College with a philosophy degree and worked for Little, Brown and Company and then at a Chelsea, Massachusetts, daily newspaper before earning a master’s from the Columbia University School of Journalism. Afterward, she worked as a reporter and later editor and bureau chief for the Gannett-owned Reporter Dispatch of White Plains, New York, before deciding to uproot and head south, having always been attracted to Southern literary traditions and Atlanta’s integral role in the civil rights movement.
As she searched for a job, a colleague passed along a posting for an associate editor position at The Georgia Bulletin. Keiser knew little about the Catholic press but found a divine fit after a little adjustment. Starting in 1980, she dove into the ecclesial waters and deadline riptide drama to crank out, alongside the editor, the small weekly publication to serve the nascent Catholic Atlanta population of then about 100,000.
“Very quickly I began to realize there was a whole Catholic press ministry in the United States that included newspapers, magazines and other periodicals, some television and some radio, book publishing and that was just an eye opener. I was really not in touch at all with the talent and depth of publications,” said Keiser, whose father was an Associated Press editor for more than 25 years. “It coincided with my returning to the church and rediscovering my faith. And being able to use my training and prior experience and my journalism school (education) in the area of the Catholic press, that was a wonderful overlap—and I don’t think it was coincidence.”
In the 1980s she wore many hats as the Chancery was more “informal” with fewer departments. She became editor in 1986, and the paper gradually added new positions including executive editor, photographer and graphic designer.
Michael Alexander recalled that Keiser hired him in August 1997 as the newspaper’s first staff photographer, a position he holds today.
He said, “Just over 10 years earlier I had done some freelance photography for the newspaper. We met one afternoon at the conclusion of Mass in the old 680 West Peachtree Street chapel. During that initial encounter, I didn’t even present my portfolio to her. We just sat in the back of the chapel and talked about photojournalism, the Catholic press, and my desire to transition from one career to another. What stood out for me from that first encounter with Gretchen was the fact that she prayed with me before we parted ways. We were practically strangers, but that moment of prayer said a lot about the kind of person she was and how she approached her craft.”
He said, “I would end up working as the Catholic press photographer in another archdiocese first, but I still credit Gretchen with pointing me in the direction where I could merge my profession with my faith, and that is something I will always be thankful to her for.”
Recording the growth of the archdiocese
Keiser chronicled the steady expansion of the church in the region into the Protestant South’s vibrant international Catholic bastion—reflected in the Eucharistic Congress that now draws more than 25,000 annually and the Catholic population of over one million.
“The phenomenal growth of the archdiocese is something we are all in awe of and amazed by that has involved the opening of many new schools, parishes, missions, ministries and the diversification of the population of metro Atlanta and north Georgia the way so many languages and cultures have developed in Atlanta over the last 40 years,” Keiser said. “The church is reflected in all the changes—the Korean parishes, Vietnamese and Hispanic parishes and missions, vibrant African and Caribbean communities, even the Polish apostolate that has grown up.”
Deacon Lloyd Sutter worked closely with Keiser from 1995 to 2007 on several projects, including a small Eucharistic Renewal Committee that blossomed into the annual Eucharistic Congress and later as administrator of the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education and Faith Formation.
He said, “Gretchen was intensely focused during each reporting week on what was happening in the universal and local Catholic Church as well as important events happening through the archdiocese and in parishes and other related matters. But most of all she was a generally happy person who liked her job and treated fairly all people whom she was interviewing and about whom she was reporting. Everything she did was accompanied by that little chuckle that was her trademark. Personally, I’m unaware of anything important to archdiocesan Catholics that was missed on her editorial watch.”
From the early 80s, Keiser found inspiration in heading up to new mountain parishes.
“To see the mission territory and see it come to fruition was really exciting and fun. And the people that did it were awesome people who were pioneers—they were so creative and hardworking and did everything themselves,” she said.
Keiser jokingly said to “just say that there are too many stories to tell” but highlighted a few such as the riveting two-day visit of Mother Teresa where she felt the presence of a living saint. She’ll never forget the arrival of Archbishop James Lyke with such energy and vigor only to die from cancer.
“It was very profound to see him share his illness publicly with us and tell us what he was going through.”
All the while she has generously guided others.
“She taught me to be a more compassionate interviewer, a better writer and a stronger woman of faith,” said Redding, now at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “I’m so honored to have worked with Gretchen for a tiny part of her career. Gretchen’s legacy is unparalleled—and I’m so blessed to have learned from her.”
Freelance editor and reporter Suzanne Haugh recalled nervously scaling the office steps to meet Keiser, whose name she had seen so often in print.
“Since that first day, it has been nothing but a delight and privilege to work with someone who is as strong and grounded in her approach to reporting as she is in living out her faith,” said Haugh. “She has been my go-to person for guidance and advice on stories and has become a dear friend whom I will never forget and am most grateful to have. What kindness, poise and wisdom—and with a laugh that always brightens my day. She is a rare jewel, and I wish her many wonderful days ahead in her retirement.”
Staff writer Andrew Nelson said, “A gift I appreciate Gretchen has is being a calm in the storm. I never heard her raise her voice, except in laughter. She could ask a series of easy questions that would reveal holes in an article I thought was ready for publication. In her way, she pushed me to make one more call or talk to one more person. You couldn’t find a better editor with an eye to catch mistakes. She has saved me more times than I care to admit. I will admit, though, with her craft, she made my stories better.”
Former staff writer Priscilla Greear will always be grateful to Keiser for giving her a chance—a Spanish major and Methodist, no less, whose ability to identify the pope back in 1997 was questionable at best. She relished her trial assignment to report on the new Spanish Mass at Keiser’s parish St. Pius X Church in Conyers.
“She helped me to appreciate the beauty of Catholicism and the dignity of the unsung parishioners at both the country and inner city parishes—from the 20-year Lenten fish fryer and soup kitchen server to the Mexican volunteer carpenter and Guadalupe prayer group leader,” said Greear. “She is one of the most humble, caring and model Christian people I’ve ever known. And with her expertise and dedication, she elevated the journalistic standards of the publication.”
Writer Nichole Golden now replaces Keiser as editor.
“Any changes or reworking she suggests are always about making the story better or clearer. It’s always about the reader for her,” said Golden. “Gretchen is unfailingly kind in her critique of stories. She is a wonderful faith example and a role model as a journalist … Her work at The Georgia Bulletin was not just a job but about spreading the Good News.”
And she’ll miss “many late nights with Gretchen, sometimes with suppers of peanut butter crackers or whatever chocolate that could be found at the Chancery, but lots of laughs, too.”
Keiser looks forward to active ministry in retirement. She believes the Bulletin continues to play a vital role for the church on its multiple media platforms whether communicating a best practice at a parish, an inspiring faith story or charitable need.
“I think that the paper presents a vision of the church in the Archdiocese of Atlanta that helps people in every parish and mission realize they are not alone in their parish or mission but part of this archdiocesan body,” she said. “This is the way we build up our faith and build up the body of Christ and broaden our vision of the wider church.”
Alexander said, “Gretchen wore a lot of hats at The Georgia Bulletin—editor, historian, mentor, proofreader. But the hat that never came off was resident prayer warrior. She has been the spiritual glue that held the publication together for nearly 40 years.”