By GEORGIA BULLETIN STAFF | Published March 14, 2013
Seated in the wood-paneled conference room, the priests waited. They did not know why they had been told to come to the meeting at the archdiocesan Chancery on March 7.
“Everybody’s looking at each other. Why are we here?” said Father Frank McNamee, rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta.
And then the news came from Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory: Pope Benedict XVI, at the archbishop’s request, had named nine archdiocesan priests as chaplains of his holiness, with the title of monsignor.
The title of monsignor is an honorary title given to a diocesan priest in recognition of his contributions to the life of the Church. Archbishop Gregory said it was “a recognition and honor to the clergy of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.”
“They represent some of the fine priests in Atlanta,” he said.
The newly named monsignors are: Msgr. Jaime Barona, pastor of St. Michael Church, Gainesville; Msgr. Ed Branch, campus minister of the Lyke House Catholic Center, Atlanta; Msgr. Albert Jowdy, pastor of St. Lawrence Church, Lawrenceville; Msgr. Frank McNamee, rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta; Msgr. Peter Rau, pastor of St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell; Msgr. Jim Schillinger, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta; Msgr. Dan Stack, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church, Cartersville; Msgr. Ed Thein, rector of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Atlanta; and Msgr. John Walsh, pastor of St. Joseph Church, Marietta.
The characteristic common to them all is serving as pastors, primarily in parishes, or, in the case of Father Branch, as pastor to Catholic students at the university level. Their reaction was great surprise.
“I think the guys were really taken off guard. There were smiles,” said Msgr. McNamee later. “It was very humbling, joyful. It’s a great honor.”
Archbishop Gregory announced that either he or one of the two auxiliary bishops of the archdiocese will visit the parish of each new monsignor at a future date to recognize the papal honor with a Mass of thanksgiving.
Msgr. McNamee visited Christ the King School after the announcement. And he laughed, recounting how a student approached him to ask, “Are you still a priest?”
And then there is the question of what to call him. Popular vote from school students and cathedral staff is to switch from Father Frank to “Monsignor Mac.”
His family in Ireland was a little shocked and very happy, he said. “I think they are still trying to digest it.”
The shock of the announcement was a common reaction among the honored priests. For Msgr. Walsh, the sudden call to the Chancery had him pondering what could be going on.
“I was just wondering what it was all about,” he said, joking about how he hoped he hadn’t done anything wrong. “I thought maybe it was just a meeting with some of the pastors in the archdiocese.”
“It was very much a surprise,” he added. “It’s been a while since there was a group made monsignors here.”
Msgr. Walsh was ordained in Ireland in 1977 by Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan and has served at many parishes in the archdiocese, including St. Jude Church, Atlanta, St. Pius X Church, Conyers, and his first assignment as parochial vicar at Corpus Christi Church in Stone Mountain.
Msgr. Walsh said his current parishioners at St. Joseph Church were very congratulatory on hearing the news. He said he felt like he was just doing what the archbishop wanted of him and will continue to serve his parish and the archdiocese.
“I’m just continuing the work that I do,” he said. “I feel very privileged that the archbishop chose me.”
Not all of the new monsignors experienced the surprise meeting. Msgr. Schillinger was in his hometown of Philadelphia presiding at the funeral Mass of an old friend. He received a call as he arrived at the cemetery.
“As I was getting out of the car, Msgr. (Joe) Corbett called to tell me the archbishop wanted to speak with me. I was then put on a speakerphone in his office as he made the presentation.”
“Later that day I sent an email message to Archbishop Gregory thanking him for this honor,” he continued. “I told him that while I would have liked to have been in his office along with the other priests as he made the formal presentation, I was very happy and grateful to be in Philadelphia where my entire family lives.”
After the graveside service he visited his mother and told her the news.
“It took me a few moments to convince her that I wasn’t joking, but then she began to beam. She could not have been happier or more proud,” he wrote by email.
The title is meaningful for the priest, who has been dedicated to IHM parish for the past decade.
“I interpret this as a recognition of the great work we have been able to accomplish at Immaculate Heart of Mary these past 10 years,” he wrote. “IHM is one of the older parishes in this archdiocese and it has always been a vibrant and diverse community with an outstanding school. I am so grateful that we have been able to build upon that strong foundation, literally and figuratively. This is a remarkable Catholic community.”
Msgr. Schillinger has also worked on the Committee for the Ongoing Formation of Priests.
“I believe the archbishop also wanted to recognize the contributions made by the Committee for Ongoing Formation of Priests, a committee on which I have served for over 25 years,” he wrote. “I am convinced of the great importance of this ministry for the life of the Church and committed to it. And I am grateful to my brother priests who also serve in this ministry.”
Msgr. Thein, another priest who was unable to make the March 7 meeting, was at a long-scheduled doctor’s appointment. He is heading to Turkey to retrace the steps of St. Paul so the appointment couldn’t be postponed.
Instead, he received a phone call from Bishop-designate David Talley. They have a long history, with Msgr. Thein serving as vocations director when the future bishop was in the seminary.
“I don’t think it’s so much an honor for me. I am thinking of the people I have served in my ministry,” he said. “Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am.”
He was ordained 34 years ago this June. He became rector of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Atlanta, in 2012.
“I was so surprised. It was not anything I was at all expecting. I’m just overwhelmed by it. I was stumbling for words” when talking with Bishop-designate Talley. He has since been “deluged with emails and phone calls” of support.
Msgr. Branch is in his 23rd year as chaplain of the Catholic Center that serves students at the historically black colleges and universities of the Atlanta University Center, including Morehouse and Spelman Colleges and Clark Atlanta University. Invited to the archdiocese to strengthen the Catholic presence at AUC in 1990, Msgr. Branch previously served in campus ministry at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and Grambling State University in Louisiana. The Catholic Center at AUC, reflecting African Catholic history and architecture, is dedicated to the late Archbishop James P. Lyke, OFM, of Atlanta. The Lyke House, closed during the universities’ spring break March 11-16, posted congratulations to Msgr. Branch on its website.
Msgr. Stack, a native of Florida, has been a priest of the archdiocese for 31 years. He has ministered in Spanish and English at parishes, including St. Bernadette in Cedartown, St. Mary in Rome, St. Joseph in Dalton, St. Anna in Monroe, and currently St. Francis of Assisi in Cartersville. He has served in the past as a vocation director for seminarians from Mexico and Guatemala and is currently the director of a mentoring program.
Msgr. Stack said, “It was absolutely the last thing on earth I was expecting. … I nearly fell over.”
He added, “I received this as one enormous affirmation, the largest possible ‘attaboy!’”
“I doubt that this is a papal recognition for my various handcraft hobbies. But it may be encouragement for the way I have striven to include the majority Spanish-speaking population into my parish work or for the work I did in the past trying to build relationships with Mexican dioceses and seminaries,” he said.
He has also continued the work of the Mentoring Project, initiated by Archbishop Gregory and then Father Greg Hartmayer, through which a newly ordained priest is matched with a priest ordained for at least 10 years.
“The mentor’s job is to walk with the new priest for two years, meeting at least monthly,” said Msgr. Stack, who now has his third mentee. “For me it has been like having a window through which to view this new marvelous generation of priests.”
For many of the priests, receiving the honor is as much a testament to their parish as it is to their work. Pastor of St. Lawrence Church in Lawrenceville, Msgr. Jowdy said the honor was “an affirmation of our parish.”
“It’s a diverse community, with parishioners from 40 different nations,” he said. “This honor celebrates our unity and our diversity, and what we are trying to accomplish.”
“And I thought the UNC-Duke game was going to be the highlight of my weekend,” he joked. (It was not – Msgr. Jowdy’s beloved Tarheels lost.)
Msgr. Jowdy said he was surprised to hear the news because he knows so many excellent senior priests serving in the archdiocese who are worthy of recognition.
“I was surprised because there are so many veteran pastors who deserve this so much more,” he said.
“I thank the archbishop for his confidence,” he said.
While the day-to-day responsibilities remain the same for these priests, the change in title may throw some of them for a loop. Msgr. Rau admits he will have some difficulty “remembering to respond when addressed as Msgr. Rau.”
“This is a wonderful celebratory moment, one for which I am most grateful,” he said. “In the end, I am still a priest and most grateful to be able to proclaim the Good News and celebrate the sacraments of Our Lord’s love with the people of God at St. Peter Chanel and this wonderful Archdiocese of Atlanta.”
He was just as surprised as the others and was quick to call his father after the meeting.
“The first person that came to mind was my mom, who passed away two years ago, but I immediately called my dad as the first person with whom I wanted to share this news. He was so excited,” he said.
“My dad and my sisters were very happy and they thought my mother would have said it’s been a long time since we had a monsignor in the family. Then she would have laughed,” he said.
The surprise continued for Msgr. Rau as he learned how quickly news could spread. By the time he returned to his Roswell parish, the staff produced a congratulatory banner and toasted him with champagne.
“I am honored and deeply humbled by Archbishop Gregory’s action,” he said. “What has amazed me today are the number of phone calls, texts, and emails from friends, parishioners past and present, offering their congratulations.”
Msgr. Barona admitted having a bad sleep the night before when he was asked to the meeting.
“I was wondering what I have done. Or maybe what I have failed to do,” he said, laughing about it later. “You know, the archbishop doesn’t call you just to say, ‘Good morning, Jaimito.’”
The honor was completely unexpected, said Msgr. Barona, who ministers bilingually in Spanish and English.
“I never dreamt of this. It came totally as a surprise to me,” he said.
“The desire of my heart is to be a good and holy priest and the Lord has given me so many blessings in my life. In almost 15 years of priesthood, I have been blessed. Honestly, this is what I have in my heart,” Msgr. Barona said.
A late vocation to the priesthood, he said, “The only thing I feel right now is an immense love of God for me. The Lord is my weakness. I just keep doing what I have to do. If they consider that I deserve this, I accept it for the honor and glory of God.”
One of nine children, he has two brothers and six sisters living in Roswell, Canada, Costa Rica, Colombia and Spain. A native of Colombia, he considers Montreal, Canada, where he grew up, his hometown.
“People are very excited. I have received emails of support and love,” he said of the announcement at the Gainesville parish. “I have seen tremendous change for the past three years in St. Michael’s. I think we are more centered than we have ever been before. I feel the presence of God. I have a group of wonderful priests with me, and deacons. I have the support of many people.”