Published January 12, 2018
ATLANTA—Msgr. R. Donald Kiernan, longtime priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and dedicated public servant, died Tuesday, Jan. 9. He was 93.
He was born in Taunton, Massachusetts, on Dec. 28, 1924, the son of Thomas F. and Lena V. (Doherty) Kiernan. He attended Coyle High School, Taunton, and Providence College, Providence, Rhode Island. In March 1945, he entered Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. A visit during his seminary studies from Msgr. P. J. O’Connor, who recruited priests to serve the Catholic Church in the South, convinced him to come to Georgia.
He was ordained to the priesthood on May 4, 1949, by Cardinal Richard Cushing, of Boston. Driving to Georgia for his first assignment in the Diocese of Savannah, he pulled into a roadside cornfield to dress before reporting for duty as assistant rector of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah. At the time, the Diocese of Savannah included the entire state of Georgia. From 1951 to 1955, he was the assistant pastor at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Atlanta.
Msgr. Kiernan served the new Atlanta Diocese from the time it was established in 1956. His pastorates from 1956 to 1985 included St. Peter Church, LaGrange; St. Bernadette Church, Cedartown; St. Michael Church, Gainesville; St. Anthony of Padua Church, Atlanta; St. Jude the Apostle Church, Sandy Springs; and Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta. He served as pastor of All Saints Church in Dunwoody beginning in 1985, retiring on Feb. 24, 2011. Named a monsignor in 1969, Msgr. Kiernan also served in a variety of roles for the archdiocese, including education, the Metropolitan Tribunal, priest personnel and as vicar general from 2000-2005.
He built a legacy of service to many community and statewide organizations. He was a colleague of Georgia governors and Atlanta mayors over the decades, in addition to chiefs of police and public servants. He combined his lifelong love of people and law enforcement in founding the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police and serving as its director and chaplain for over 20 years. He was also a chaplain to the DeKalb County police, Metro Atlanta police, Georgia State Patrol, Federal Bureau of Investigation and local division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Msgr. Kiernan served for over a decade in the 1950s and 1960s as editor of The Georgia Bulletin, for which he wrote his folksy “Georgia Pines” column. He was a chaplain for the Knights of Columbus and active in Boy Scouts in metro Atlanta, serving on the local executive board. In 1984, the Boy Scouts of America recognized Msgr. Kiernan’s contributions by awarding him its highest honor, the Silver Beaver Award. He received several degrees, including an honorary doctorate in public administration from Biscayne College, Miami, in 1974; an honorary doctor of law in 1998 from Georgia State University, in recognition of his support of criminal justice; and in 1999, during the celebration of his 50th jubilee as a priest, an honorary doctor of law from Providence College, his alma mater. At that jubilee Archbishop John F. Donoghue said of Msgr. Kiernan, “He is an extraordinary priest who has a sincere love for and interest in people. He has never met an individual he doesn’t love. We are grateful for his years of service to the archdiocese and its people.”
Msgr. Kiernan was an advocate and friend for many communities around the state. He was called “captain” by the officers with the Georgia State Patrol, “colonel” by the DeKalb County Police Department and “doc” because of the honorary doctorates he received. He told The Georgia Bulletin in 1999 that the title that meant the most to him was simply “monsignor,” and it was the “one that made his eyes sparkle and brought an instant smile to his face.”
His joy in the company of others continued into retirement. He “held court” at his weekly Monday dinner club, enjoyed evenings out at favorite restaurants and attended the 5 p.m. vigil Mass at All Saints Church. He faithfully heard confessions at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta for more than a quarter century until his death.
In a 2012 oral history interview with the archdiocesan Office of Archives and Records, Msgr. Kiernan, then almost 88, said, “But I can truthfully say, if there was ever a happy priest, it’s been myself. I have no regrets for anything at all. That’s a good way to be, isn’t it?”
He is survived by the children and grandchildren of his siblings.
A vigil and rosary for Msgr. Kiernan will be held at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 16, at All Saints Church, 2443 Mt. Vernon Road, Dunwoody. A funeral Mass will be celebrated on Wednesday, Jan. 17, at 11 a.m. at All Saints. The celebrant will be Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III. A reception will follow. Interment will follow at a later time at the parish’s columbarium.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Msgr. Kiernan’s memory may be made to the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home, 760 Pollard Blvd., SW, Atlanta, GA 30315, www.olphhome.com.