By JEAN DRISKELL, Special to the Bulletin | Published June 21, 2018
ATLANTA—The brother priests of Msgr. Stephen T. Churchwell, JCD, remembered his love of vocation and people at a June 7 vigil at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Atlanta.
The longtime priest and canon lawyer for the Archdiocese of Atlanta died May 31. He was 68.
“From the earliest of times, Steve knew something was much larger than himself. He wasn’t concerned with himself. His concern was of other people and their needs,” said Father Richard Wise, administrator, St. Gerard Majella Church, Fort Oglethorpe.
Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III presided at the vigil with some 100 people attending. The music was provided by Jeanne Ann Ratliff, cantor. A funeral Mass was celebrated June 8 at the Basilica.
A dedicated friend
Father Wise, the first of two eulogists, spoke about how Msgr. Churchwell would talk and give food to a homeless man named Sarge.
“He always showed an interest in Sarge, a dedication to Sarge,” Father Wise said. “Steve would talk to the homeless and have meetings with them on the sidewalks.”
Prior to 2010 Msgr. Churchwell primarily served as a parish priest and worked as the adjutant judicial vicar/judge in the Metropolitan Tribunal. Eight years ago he became the archdiocese’s first Vicar for Senior Priests, tending to various personal, medical and financial needs of older priests.
He attended Saint Meinrad College in Indiana from 1967-71, earning a degree in liberal arts, followed by a postgraduate degree in theology. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1976.
The priest’s first assignments were as a parochial vicar at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Decatur, and Sacred Heart Church, Atlanta. He served as parochial vicar at St. Anthony of Padua Church, Atlanta, for one year before beginning graduate studies in canon law at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
Returning to Georgia, he served as a parochial vicar at St. Andrew Church, Roswell.
Affiliated with the Tribunal from 1978-2000, the monsignor’s positions included assistant chief judge and chief judge. In 1984, he began serving as a parochial vicar at the Basilica, until he was named the pastor in 1994.
As pastor of historic Sacred Heart, he welcomed Mother Teresa (St. Teresa of Kolkata) for her 1995 visit to Atlanta, offering Mass for some 1,300 in honor of the foundress of the Missionaries of Charity on June 1, 1995.
In December 2000, he was appointed a judge in the provincial Court of Appeals.
“He was an amazing preacher,” said Father Wise. “Steve was a friend for every priest. He was our mentor, our guide. He loved being a priest. He loved celebrating Mass. He loved his family very much. He would just love you.”
Msgr. Churchwell served as pastor at Christ Redeemer Church, Dawsonville, from June 2006 to July 2010. Christ Redeemer parishioner Joe Eberhard, in an email, said, “He was truly a holy man who had a gentle approach and made a lasting impression on everyone he touched.”
He added, “He will always hold a very dear spot in everyone’s heart here and did marvelous work here as our shepherd of the Catholic faith.”
An example of “lived faith”
Msgr. Edward J. Thein, pastor, Basilica of the Sacred Heart, said that Msgr. Churchwell “tunneled down to absorb even the most arcane details with a phenomenal recall” on topics such as science fiction, financial management, ecclesiology and history.
“He had the ability to translate lofty theological concepts into ordinary layman’s language,” Msgr. Thein said in his eulogy.
“Msgr. Churchwell was a voracious reader of financial and historical journals,” he said, “while always leaving time for his long time favorite, science fiction.”
Msgr. Thein said that he believed, in some special way, science fiction prepared Msgr. Churchwell “for his flexible way of seeing the complexity of life’s situations; not just what the rules said but how they might be respectfully and practically applied to help those whom he served.”
“Beyond his ministry, it never ceased to amaze me of how he could consume so much complex written material and remember what he absorbed,” he said.
Msgr. Churchwell was a founding member of the Catholic Credit Union board of directors until its merger with the Georgia United Credit Union in 2005. He remained on the board of directors until his death. He was also a trustee for the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia.
Msgr. Thein said that Msgr. Churchwell’s work on behalf of the foundation and credit union was the fruit of many hours of study and reflection.
“His priestly vocation took him in many directions during that 40 some years of service in Atlanta,” he said. “Steve was passionate in his concern for the welfare of the people he served and later, the care of others and an advocate for our senior priests and retired clergy until his last days.”
“Msgr. Steve was a man of simple tastes; not ostentatious with a lived faith, tracing its roots far back to the principles of his youth, his family, and Baptist upbringing,” Msgr. Thein said.
Born in Illinois in 1949, he was the son of George and the late Juanita Wilson Churchwell. The oldest of five children, he converted to Catholicism at 17, entering the seminary out of high school.
“Faithful to his vocation, he celebrated Mass and preached with intense love,” said Msgr. Thein. “This is my fitting remembrance of my friend and brother Steve who celebrated Mass with great devotion and great love.”
“I first met Father Churchwell around 1976 when we were both on the Board for Catholic Charities,” said Lee Doyle, parishioner and chair of the Flower Guild at the Basilica.
She said that Msgr. Churchwell told her “he considered himself a real student and that he had just read a book that said that the most effective sermon was seven minutes and he was going to practice that.”
Doyle said that when they met at board meetings she would ask how he was doing with whittling down homilies and he would say, “I’m down to nine minutes, I’m down to eight minutes and he definitely got down to seven minutes.”
“He would come in on Friday mornings and always tell the flower ladies what a wonderful job we do and how lovely the church looked,” she said. “He loved to go to garage sales and would always be looking for vases for us. So it was with great joy that the vases on the high altar are ones he found for us as well as the silver loving cups on the side altars.”
“In his own quiet way he would add such value and support to the ministries of so many people in the parish,” Doyle said.
“He was a great spiritual man. He was a very kind, patient man who was a wonderful listener,” she said. “He was a dear friend who would come to the house for dinner. He buried my mother. I’m going to miss him a lot.”
“There was an openness and warmth about him,” Ralph Bailey, a Basilica parishioner and retired nurse, said. “He was a good, good man. It seemed he was always there for people.”
He added that Msgr. Churchwell made it a point to be at his graduation from nursing school.
Also, Msgr. Churchwell would bless all of Bailey’s cars. “I never had a wreck,” he said.
“I remember his humility,” Bailey said. “His piety was genuine. You knew he was a man of God. When he said Mass it was like God was listening. He loved Sacred Heart (Basilica) as much as anyone did.”
Nichole Golden and Mary Anne Castranio contributed to the article.