Staff Photo: Lee Depkin ---- A retirement reception for Father John Kieran, shown here, of St. Pius X Catholic Church will be held at the church tomorrow at 6:30 p.m., following the 5 p.m. Mass.
After almost 17 years as the beloved priest of St. Pius X Catholic Church in Conyers, Father John Kieran will retire next month, leaving behind hundreds of friends both in and outside the local parish church who will miss the man they all call "Father John." People of many denominations in Rockdale and Newton counties are planning to attend Kieran's retirement celebration at the church at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
What some thought was going to be a simple gathering to say goodbye has now grown into an event with more than 650 people already signed up to attend Kieran's retirement reception.
"It's overwhelming," St. Pius Deacon Joe Rhodes said of the expected turnout. "...He's been a very unique pastor. I'm a lifelong Catholic and I've been in many parishes. His reach into the community -- not just the Catholic community -- has been quite awesome. He's touched the lives of many in and outside of the Catholic faith. We're going to miss him. He was there 17 years, which in itself is an anomaly. They normally don't leave priests that long in a parish."
Kieran's time at St. Pius has been marked by many notable achievements, not the least of which has been his trailblazing work with leaders of other denominations in the county on projects to benefit the entire community.
Kieran and St. Pius helped get Family Promise of New Rock off the ground with St. Pius as the second of 11 churches to sign on to help the group that assists homeless families in the region. Being part of an interdenominational endeavor, however, was not something new for Kieran.
"It's partly because my mother was not Catholic," he said. "We always had interfaith in our family. She was Episcopalian. She lived and was an active person until she was 92. She won a bridge competition two weeks before she died."
Even as he reaches retirement age, Kieran also looks forward to staying active and will continue to work in the ministry.
"Because we serve under our bishop, at the age of 75 the bishop makes a decision whether you retire or not," Kieran said. "There are different levels of retirement. I'm retiring as pastor, but will be a priest at the Cathedral parish in downtown Atlanta."
Kieran said he will miss many things about St. Pius, but especially its people.
"You bond intimately with a lot of parishioners over a period of more than 16 years," he said. "I'll miss that very much. Those folks kind of become family away from family. My biological family -- the majority of them -- are still in Ireland. Your parishioners become your host family in a very intimate way. You do things with them, so that's a loss. Also, I know the community here... Living downtown is not my choice of places to live, but I'm happy to continue on in the priesthood."
Born June 6, 1937, in Dublin, Ireland, Kieran is the second child of eight born to Laurence and Joan McKeever Kieran. The two oldest children grew up to become Catholic priests, Kieran and his older brother Richard, who served in the Atlanta area until a brain hemorrhage in 1999 left him disabled. It was while his brother was serving the Atlanta Archdiocese that Kieran first joined him in the ministry.
Kieran grew up working the family farm in Dublin, which has been in his family now for more than eight generations. Following high school, he went to horticultural school, worked at a fruit farm and was heading for a career in horticulture and landscaping, when a volunteer stint in his early 20s with the St. Vincent DePaul Society inspired Kieran to begin thinking about becoming a priest.
"I just felt a deep urge to serve people in a very deep, spiritual and meaningful way," Kieran said. "I was working and helping at an orphanage and just kind of working to make life a bit better for disadvantaged people. It is a call to serve people."
Kieran answered the call into the ministry and at 23, he entered All Hallows College Seminary in Dublin where he studied for six years. He was ordained a priest June 18, 1967, and volunteered for the Atlanta Archdiocese where his brother Father Richard served. Kieran became a U.S. citizen in 1997. His first pastorate was St. Joseph's Church in Dalton and its mission in Blue Ridge. He also served St. Philip Benizi in Jonesboro for nine years.
In the summer of 1984, Kieran was appointed by Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan to one of his greatest challenges -- to start a church in the eastern part of DeKalb County.
"We went out there to plant a church with no money, no people and no place," Kieran said.
Kieran went door to door gathering information and inviting active and inactive Catholics to become members of Christ Our Hope, founding a church which grew and continues to remain active today.
Through the years, Kieran served other parishes and then almost 17 years ago, he was appointed priest of St. Pius X Catholic Church in Conyers. He still enjoys horticulture and landscaping work and has personally helped maintain the small cemetery on the parish grounds.
As he prepares to retire as pastor on July 11, Kieran will leave the church in the hands of a friend. Father Randy Mattox of Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Ellijay will be the new priest at St. Pius. Mattox, as Rhodes explains, served St. Pius as a seminarian a few years ago. Seminarians, who are in school all year, are invited to serve in parishes for the summer.
"Father John had Father Randy, who was a seminarian a few years back (come serve at St. Pius)," Rhodes said. "In the summers, they get a dose of living in the parish. Father John really likes him and they have a good rapport."
Rhodes said everyone is invited to the retirement reception for Kieran Saturday, which will take place following the 5 p.m. Mass.
"My memories have been great here," Kieran said. "It's been a good ride all these years and I do think we, as the Christian church, must work together. Number one -- to fulfill what Jesus challenged us to do, to make disciples everywhere. Number two -- to overcome the great challenges of today."
Beth Sexton is a freelance writer based in Gwinnett County. If you have a story idea, email Karen Rohr, features editor, at email@example.com.