Friends Tell Tales Of His Humor, Kindness
Published: November 24, 2011
ATLANTA—Archbishop John F. Donoghue is being remembered for his fidelity to the Catholic faith and for the initiatives he fostered so more people could fall in love with the faith he loved.
But some people not only called him “Archbishop,” they also called him a friend. They remember the archbishop who preferred to drive himself around the archdiocese, who picked up his secretary at her home if it snowed and drove her to work, and who enjoyed teasing people and catching them off guard with his humor.
Archbishop John F. Donoghue is flanked by his two vicars general, Msgr. R. Donald Kiernan, left, and Msgr. Paul Reynolds, right, as he is honored at a retirement luncheon Dec. 14, 2004. (Photos by Michael Alexander)
“He had a tremendous sense of humor,” Father Frank McNamee said.
The priest unexpectedly supplied the archbishop with one of his favorite stories.
On the day of Father McNamee’s ordination in Ireland, in May 1995, Father McNamee and Archbishop Donoghue were walking to the church for the ordination. A woman saw them and started yelling, “Frankie, Frankie, it’s not too late!”
Archbishop Donoghue turned around and shouted back, “He’s mine. He’s mine,” Father McNamee said, laughing.
For years, the priest said, “He told this story on me over and over again. … He always remembered that.”
After retirement, Archbishop Donoghue went on a cruise, accompanied by several priests, including Father McNamee. After they embarked, they went to Mass aboard ship, dressed casually. The priest celebrant, who didn’t know them, proceeded to talk about the Atlanta Archdiocese, somewhat critical of the archbishop’s, in his view, conservative leadership. They said nothing. Later that evening, when they were dressed in clerics, the priest came over to meet them and sit with them at dinner.
Archbishop Donoghue stood up and reached across the table and shook his hand and said, “I’m Archbishop John Donoghue of the Archdiocese of Atlanta,” Father McNamee said.
“He had a sly wit,” he said. “That poor priest did not know what to say.”
Friday lunch with the archbishop and his vicars general, the late Msgr. Paul Reynolds and Msgr. R. Donald Kiernan, was not to be missed, said Father McNamee, who served as director of Priest Personnel for the late archbishop.
Archbishop John F. Donoghue is all smiles following his introduction by chancellor Msgr. Paul Reynolds at the June 9, 2004 groundbreaking for St. George Village.
“It was one joke after another. It was just a delight to enjoy their company,” he said.
Keri Allen coordinated the opening of the perpetual adoration chapel at the Cathedral of Christ the King at Archbishop Donoghue’s request and the unfolding of the archbishop’s Eucharistic Renewal. When she was named the Cathedral’s “woman of the year,” she came forward, along with all other parish winners, to receive her certificate from the archbishop. “How in the world did they pick you?” he asked.
“He kept you humble,” Allen said.
Marianne Fronek, the archbishop’s secretary from 1993 to 2004, said his humor may have been a way for an essentially shy person to navigate the challenges of his public position. His sociability extended to the Chancery secretaries, whom he would take to lunch as a group.
“He would come and pick me up on snow days. He had no fear of going out in the snow,” she said.
Archbishop Donoghue was “very easy” to work for, she said.
“He was very kind and he was very generous,” Fronek said. “He didn’t put that out there. That’s just how he was.”
“Things were not important to him,” she added. “He would give away gifts that he was given.”
While his determination to open a perpetual adoration chapel at the Cathedral of Christ the King in 1994 was well known, not many people knew he was a regular guardian there every Thursday from 1 to 2 a.m., something he continued until 2010.
When he was going to be away, he always made sure he had a replacement for his hour, Fronek said. Sometimes, she took his hour when he had to travel.
Kathi Stearns, who first worked at The Georgia Bulletin and then was appointed by Archbishop Donoghue as his vice chancellor, said the archbishop had a public schedule and a personal schedule.
“I learned that his personal schedule had very little to do with taking care of his needs. Instead, he saw it as a way for him to serve the spiritual needs of his flock in a non-public way,” she said.
“When I was a reporter at The Georgia Bulletin he would often call me about people I had written stories about whom he felt needed ministry. He would then personally reach out to them,” Stearns said. “For example, in a story about a severely handicapped child named Erin Lenahan, the archbishop learned that her father, Luke, had built a house that was handicapped accessible for his daughter. Archbishop Donoghue asked if he could go out to the house and bless it once the father had completed building it. After blessing the house, the archbishop would continue to ask me how the family was doing. A few years later, I learned that Erin was dying. He personally went to the hospital to give her last rites and prayed with the family during their time of sorrow.”
Asked what would be Archbishop Donoghue’s legacy, Father McNamee said, “Many things come to mind: the Eucharistic Congress, perpetual adoration, education.”
But, he said, “I think it was the kindness of the man we will always remember.”
Father McNamee recounted when his father died unexpectedly in Ireland. It was the time of the Easter Triduum, and he was pastor of the newly formed St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell.
“I will never forget the first telephone call I received was from Archbishop Donoghue to sympathize. … He said, ‘I want you to go to Ireland and celebrate your father’s funeral. … I will celebrate the Triduum for you.’”
Father McNamee protested, but the archbishop insisted. Father McNamee did go to Ireland to celebrate his father’s funeral. Other priests stepped forward and he did not have to ask the archbishop to celebrate the lengthy Triduum liturgies, but Father McNamee never forgot the offer.
“There was a kindness to his priests that was unbelievable. He was always willing to work with a priest, to give that priest another chance. He was very kind to his priests from what I saw working in Priest Personnel with him,” he said.
“If something happened, he wouldn’t express his sadness, but you could see the sadness,” the pastor added.
He saw in Archbishop Donoghue “a priest’s priest,” who loved being with other priests and who looked forward to retirement and being a parish priest again as he was when first ordained.
“In many ways, I looked to Archbishop Donoghue as a father. He was always very kind to me, and there was that mutual respect we had for one another.”
When Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory was appointed archbishop of Atlanta, the priests who made up the College of Consultors were required to appoint an administrator to serve until Archbishop Gregory was installed. They decided Archbishop Donoghue should be the administrator. So after their private meeting, they called Archbishop Donoghue into the room and said, “We would like you to be the administrator of the archdiocese.” He said, “Thanks very much. I’d be delighted.”
“It was funny,” Father McNamee said. “You didn’t know whether he was kidding or not.”
“They were happy priests, (Msgr.) Reynolds and the archbishop. I loved it, just seeing that,” Father McNamee said.
“I would say Reynolds and himself are up in heaven and they are busting their sides laughing and I’m sure Reynolds is saying, ‘Let’s go for a little morsel of food.’”