Franciscans Bid Farewell to UGA

Jocelyn Thomas Around the Province

ATHENS, Ga. – Against the backdrop of strong winds, sheets of rain and a global pandemic, the friars and community at the Catholic Center at the University of Georgia bid farewell to each other on a weekend filled with fond memories, well wishes, and tears of joy and sadness.

The Catholic Center at UGA. (Photo courtesy of Frank Critch)

On the weekend of June 27, the friars’ goodbyes to the Catholic Center community ended six decades of Franciscan ministry in Athens. Members of the community didn’t let the stormy weather deter them from participating in a “drive-by farewell” on Saturday evening to thank the friars for their pastoral care. During the final Mass on Sunday, the friars concluded their departure with the ritual of leaving – praying over the congregation, which, in turn, extended hands over the friars.

The departure is part of HNP’s Franciscan Ecology initiative through which it is withdrawing friars from nine ministry locations this year.

It was an emotional weekend for everyone involved, according to Frank Critch, OFM, who had served as director of UGA’s campus ministry since 2017.

“We had been preparing six months for that weekend, but it does not take away the sting,” said Frank, a native of Canada. “From very humble beginnings as a house church, the community now reflects the vision and dedication of the friars and faith community here at the Catholic Center. We have been so blessed by this community. The Franciscan charism will live here long after the friars have departed.”

A message of love for the friars by the UGA community. (Photo courtesy of Frank Ctitch)

The drive-by for the friars on Saturday evening brought out many community members, including a number of students. Cars decorated with signs with touching messages and balloons made everyone forget the wind and rain.

“This did not dampen spirits. There were many tears shed and wonderful memories shared,” Frank said.

The community members, led by Jackie Raines, a finance council member, donated to the center a granite bench inscribed with the names f the friars who served at the Catholic Center.

“It was a great tribute to those who ministered here,” said Frank. “We were quite humbled.”

Frank said all of the Masses on the final weekend were quite emotional, but none more than the last Mass when the friars prayed the ritual of leaving.

“The cantor sang a new blessing of St. Francis when the friars prayed over the congregation, and then the congregation extended hands over the friars,” explained Frank, who was ordained to the priesthood in 2012.

In reflecting on the Masses and the service, which were live-streamed on the Internet, there was a certain level of sadness in knowing that many in the community could not participate in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Casey Cole presents a final message as the friars leave. (Photo courtesy of Frank Ctitch)

“It was also unsettling not to be able to embrace each other because of social distancing required for everyone’s health and safety,” Frank said. “Overall, it was a blessed weekend and one that I will remember for many years. The impact the friars have had on the Athens and university communities can never be measured,” he added.

In his final homily, Frank spoke of the personality and culture of the UGA community. “You are a very hospitable community and your generosity is overwhelming,” he told the congregants, rattling off the impressive list of community outreach – Oasis, Our Daily Bread, the nurses’ clinic, the Georgia Conflict Center, Camp Kesum, Franklyn Fridge, Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition, Family Focus, prison ministry, and Lioba’s School in Tanzania.

“As friars, we have been blessed by you. On behalf of all the friars from the past and present – thank you. The spirit of the friars who have ministered here throughout the years is foundational for this community and will continue to be present in the Franciscan charism you live out in your daily lives long after we are gone,” Frank said during his homily.

Reflecting on his first year as an ordained priest stationed at the Catholic Center, Casey Cole, OFM, told the community that weekend, “If I had to choose — knowing what I know now — I would not have changed my mind about coming here to minister. We have been so blessed by this community and the Franciscan charism will live on long after the friars have departed.”

A bench noting the different friars who served at UGA. (Photo courtesy of Frank Critch)

On June 28, the friars’ last day in Athens, Casey posted a video message of thanks to the UGA students on the Catholic Center at UGA Faceebook page.

Friars have served at the UGA Catholic Center since 1957. Prior to Frank and Casey, others have included Cronan Kelly, OFM, T.T. McNulty, OFM, Christian Malone, OFM, Neil O’Connell, OFM, Joe Holohan, OFM, Bob Menard, OFM, Steven Pavignano, OFM, Kevin Tortorelli, OFM, Gerald Dolan, OFM, Jack McDowell, OFM, David Hyman, OFM, Thomas Vigliotta, OFM, John Coughlin, OFM, Scott Brookbank, OFM, and Bill McConville, OFM.

An article titled “Departing Franciscans Leave Enduring Spirit at UGA Catholic Center” published June 11 in The Georgia Bulletin, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, described the history and impact of the Franciscans.

Photos of the Catholic Center at UGA can be found on its Facebook page.

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of Communications for Holy Name Province.