By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 2, 2012
Father T.J. Meehan once carried a notebook where he wrote the names of patients he talked with during his stint at Grady Hospital.
Some 1,400 of them were remembered. Most were patients diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
“A few may be living, but not many,” he said.
Seeking out the ill, the dying, the overlooked always appealed to Father Meehan. He felt called since he was ordained in 1972 to serve where most people had never spoken to a Catholic priest or had ever entered a church. That desire took him to the downtown public hospital, a safety net for the poor and uninsured.
“It stretched me. I worked in an environment where Catholics were only 1 or 2 percent of the hospital environment. It was a good experience to understand how other people dealt with grief,” he said.
After ministering from Appalachia to the hubbub of downtown Atlanta, he has retired. Medical issues with his eyesight, in part, made the decision for him after serving for 40 years at the altar and the bedside of the ill.
Ordained in 1972, Father Thomas J. Meehan worked in the Archdiocese of Atlanta for 25 years before his recent retirement. Some of his responsibilities included hospital chaplain, parish pastor and director of the HIV/AIDS ministry for the archdiocese.
He finished his active ministry as the spiritual leader of the Basilica of Sacred Heart, Atlanta. His office at the handsome Peachtree Street landmark for the past eight years has been packed. Over a breakfast of a cup of black coffee and oatmeal with fruit at a nearby bakery, Father Meehen reflected on his years of ministry.
The 67-year-old grew up in a blue-collar, heavily Catholic neighborhood of Cincinnati, one of four children. His father worked for the U.S. Postal Service. His given name is Thomas Joseph, named for his father, but his friends and family only call him T.J. Priesthood became an idea in his early high school years. It wasn’t an odd idea for the Irish Catholic family. An older brother attended the seminary ahead of him and an uncle and a cousin were also priests.
But Father Meehan realized he wanted to be where Catholics were few in number. As a young priest with the Glenmary Home Missioners, he was pastor of a six-county parish in eastern Kentucky, where two counties had no Catholics at all. He did it all, from cutting the lawn to serving at liturgy.
He served for 26 years with Glenmary as a pastor, a teacher, and as personnel director of his religious community working out of the Glenmary Research Center, which was then located in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood.
And while living in Midtown, he struck up a friendship with a young man who sat on a rocking chair on the center’s porch. The man shared he had HIV/AIDS and confided to him about isolation and rejection because of the disease from his church and family. He soon stopped coming by and Father Meehan heard he died.
From that encounter, Father Meehan served people with the disease, from delivering food to participating in an ecumenical program for those too ill to work.
Catholics in downtown parishes reached out. The archdiocese also responded around that same time with activism to the HIV/AIDS crisis. In 1995, the Gift of Grace House, staffed by the Missionaries of Charity, opened as a hospice for women with the disease. It was dedicated by Blessed Mother Teresa. And Father Meehan was appointed by Archbishop John F. Donoghue to head up the HIV/AIDS ministry for the archdiocese.
The disease was taking its toll in Georgia. In 1995, there were 2,276 cases a year of people diagnosed with AIDS, according to a state study. Today, the number of cases is 955.
Father Meehan around that time became a member of the clergy of the archdiocese. He served in the West End of Atlanta at St. Anthony of Padua Church, at Grady Hospital, and at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception before his last assignment at Sacred Heart.
At Grady Hospital, patients proclaimed every faith, from Protestant and non-Christians to unbelieving. “There’s a divine spark in all of the people I was ministering to,” he said.
Many feared that God had forsaken them, like their friends, family, a faith community, he said. But his message focused on God’s love, he said. “Don’t even doubt that God is on your side. God loves you. No matter what you fear.”
The archdiocese has since closed the HIV/AIDS ministry office Father Meehan began and made the ministry a parish-led issue. People are still living with HIV and it continues to carry a stigma, but the challenge is for people to get to know them and serve them, he said.
His eight years at Sacred Heart have been his longest tenure. The historic church was designated as the only basilica in Georgia during his time there.
“It was not all about architecture. It was not all about history. It was making sure our parish was alive, welcoming, vibrant, ministering to the wide range of people that God has put in our path,” said Father Meehan.
There is “the spirit of the place” that draws people, he said, adding how the parish doubled in size to some 1,400 registered families. He called his time there “probably the happiest and most fulfilling thing in my 40 years as a priest.”
Deacon Mike Balfour, the parish administrator for the past three years, said Father Meehan “took people out of their comfort zone in a good way.”
“He carries his sense of mission outreach from Glenmary into the urban parish environment. He instilled that sense of the Gospel call to minister to those who are generally overlooked. He rolled his sleeves up and did the work with the people.”
Father Meehan is staying in Atlanta, making “cameo” appearances at parishes around the archdiocese. He’ll also dedicate a little more time to his hobby, trout fishing.
For Anne Whitlock, the leader of the parish council, Father Meehan helped her deepen her faith. She said he has a knack for embracing many different people, from the homeless person and visiting convention-goers to long-time parishioners.
“He knew everybody’s name. It’s amazing to me that he knew your name. That sense of knowing the people really made it feel like a family,” said Whitlock, a parishioner for 11 years.
After Mass, she said, “he is the type of priest you not only go out and shake his hand, but you give a hug.”
Father T. J. Meehan retired in June. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory wrote him that “you have had a wonderful priestly journey with the Holy Spirit, first as a Glenmary Home
Missioner, and then later among the many parish
communities of this archdiocese. …. I also wish to recognize your tireless concern for those who suffer from AIDS. … By this special apostolate, you have enhanced the work of the Gospel … and provided a worthy example for those who will follow you in this ministry.’