Published June 7, 2018
ATLANTA—Msgr. Stephen T. Churchwell, JCD, a longtime priest and canon lawyer for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, died May 31. He was 68.
Born in Carmi, Illinois, on Oct. 4, 1949, he was the son of George and the late Juanita Wilson Churchwell. The oldest of five children, he converted to Catholicism at the age of 17, entering the seminary right out of high school. In a 2001 interview with The Georgia Bulletin, he admitted that his parents were less than thrilled at first. He said, “I think they thought that this would pass and they would come and get me when I wanted to leave,” adding, “but of course, I kept them waiting.”
He attended Saint Meinrad College in Indiana from 1967-71, earning a degree in liberal arts, followed by a postgraduate degree in theology in 1976.
He was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta, on May 1, 1976.
His 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 from 1979-82 at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C. There he was extremely involved, serving in student government and as a chaplain for the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He celebrated Sunday Mass and put on two retreats a year, as well as two annual penance services.
Returning to Atlanta, he served as a parochial vicar at St. Andrew Church, Roswell, from 1982-84.
Affiliated with the Metropolitan Tribunal from 1978-2000, Msgr. Churchwell’s positions included vice officialis (assistant chief judge) from 1982-88 and officialis (chief judge) from 1988-91. In 1984, he began serving as a parochial vicar at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Atlanta, until he was named pastor in 1994. In December 2000, he was appointed a judge in the provincial Court of Appeals.
“I’ve always had a need for an intellectual outlet and (canon law) is one way to find that and to also be doing something helpful for people,” he told The Georgia Bulletin.
As pastor of historic Sacred Heart, he welcomed Mother Teresa (now St. Teresa of Kolkata) for her 1995 visit to Atlanta. Given six days’ notice, he celebrated Mass for some 1,300 in honor of the foundress of the Missionaries of Charity on June 1, 1995. He was also pastor of the downtown parish for the 1996 Olympic Games, which he said “literally happened at our door.” He said, “It was definitely something to remember.”
In the 2001 interview, Msgr. Churchwell said that he appreciated the uniqueness of the over 100-year-old Sacred Heart, which “existed not only when it was easy to be a Catholic, but when it was hard to be a Catholic.” He added, “One needs to respect the tradition that goes with that.”
He celebrated his silver jubilee in May 2001, and later that month he was invested as monsignor by Archbishop John F. Donoghue, with the rank of prelate of honor.
He was a founding member of the Catholic Credit Union board of directors until their 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. He served as manager of the priest’s assistance fund for some 20 years, as well as the priests’ retirement committee.
Msgr. Churchwell was the first Vicar for Senior Priests for the archdiocese, appointed by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory in 2010. As vicar, he was the liaison and minister for priests over the age of 65, a job he performed with pastoral care and love. His duties were varied, from arranging medical appointments for an elderly priest, overseeing the small corps of volunteers who provide transportation for these priests, coordinating out-of-town visits from family, advocating on benefits and financial matters, or spending time with ill priests.
In a 2014 article, Msgr. Churchwell said, “It is very gratifying to me that I can participate in providing care for the priests who need it as they age.”
Bishop David P. Talley, former auxiliary bishop of Atlanta, said of Msgr. Churchwell, “He has done and is doing amazing work” for his brother priests. “He is an amazing servant-leader … one who has not sought the spotlight for himself.”
Msgr. Churchwell is survived by his father, George, and his siblings and their spouses, Douglas R. and Sharon Churchwell, Bradley K. and Carrie Churchwell, George T. and Melissa Churchwell Jr. and Kimberly A. and Keith McCarty, as well as numerous nieces and nephews.
The vigil will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 7, at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, 353 Peachtree St., NE, Atlanta. A reception for clergy and family will follow.
The funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. on Friday, June 8, at the Basilica. Interment will follow immediately at Arlington Memorial Park. For those not attending the interment, a reception will follow at the Basilica.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Msgr. Churchwell’s memory may be made to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, 353 Peachtree St., NE, Atlanta, GA 30308.