In the spring of 1972, not long before I graduated from the College of William and Mary in Virginia, I first heard of the Southern Cross. Then a seminarian for the Diocese of Savannah, Chris Schreck, was living at Saint Bede’s rectory in Williamsburg, where he introduced me to his bishop, Gerard L. Frey, and his Vocations Director, Father Robert B. Mattingly, who were visiting. Chris mentioned to them that I wanted to study for the priesthood, but as a recent convert to Catholicism, I had no ties with my home diocese (Cincinnati) and would be willing to study for Savannah.
I was planning to pursue a graduate degree in History at Indiana University, so I was thinking of entering seminary a few years later. But Bishop Frey and Father Mattingly asked me a simple, life-changing question: “Why don’t you come now?” I have loved the Diocese of Savannah since that moment. I said yes. A few weeks later, Chris informed me that he had met in Richmond with Monsignor Roger Roensch, the “recruiter” for the Pontifical North American College in Rome, at Bishop Frey’s request, with a view to his being sent there to study theology beginning in 1973. I congratulated him, and then he dropped a bombshell. Bishop Frey had asked Monsignor Roensch to interview me in Williamsburg the next day!
It was arranged that I would spend the summer in the Diocese of Savannah and then go to Rome in the fall of 1972. While joining Chris and the new pastor of Saint Bede’s for pizza just before graduation, I was shown a copy of the most recent edition of the Southern Cross. I was very impressed by its quality and felt proud of my new diocese for publishing its own newspaper 45 times a year.
During that summer in Albany and Savannah, I read the Southern Cross each week and arranged to subscribe to it, although it always arrived in Rome a few weeks late. That fall (1972), the Vocations Office asked each diocesan seminarian to contribute a reflection, so I submitted mine, which was the first of countless articles and commentaries published in its pages for the next 49 years.
On November 8, I learned from another paper, the Vatican’s Osservatore Romano, which I read every day to improve my new Italian, that “Il Santo Padre ha trasferito S.E. Mons. Gerard L. Frey dalla Diocesi di Savannah…” Even then I understood that my diocese and I no longer had a bishop, as he had been transferred to the See of Lafayette in his native Louisiana!
It was not until March 5, 1973, that Pope Paul VI appointed a new Bishop of Savannah—Monsignor Raymond W. Lessard, superior of the Villa Stritch, the residence for American priests working for the Vatican. I was introduced to him that very evening. He invited me to lunch, which led to my interviewing him for the Southern Cross—my first scoop!
Bishop Lessard ordained me to the priesthood in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Savannah, on July 3, 1976. After a year of graduate studies, he assigned me to Saint Teresa Parish Albany as parochial vicar in 1977. A year or so later, John Markwalter, the new editor of the Southern Cross, asked the bishop to appoint me as Editorial Writer. For the next two years, I would type out editorials on an electric typewriter, place them in manila envelopes and drive them to the Greyhound Bus station in Albany and send them off to John at Chalker Publishing Company in Waynesboro—49 times a year.
Bishop Lessard sent me back to Rome for further studies in 1980, so I was not able to send weekly editorials back to the States, but I did send a series on the liturgy that ran for quite a while. When I returned to Savannah in January 1981 as Director of Adult Education, I was asked to write occasional editorials until Bishop J. Kevin Boland appointed me editor as of January 1, 1997. I remained in that post, working closely with Barbara King, the Director of Communications, until June 30, 2010.
At the bishop’s directive, I began the practice of laying out the paper electronically and transmitting it over the Internet to Waynesboro. This change meant fewer hands were needed for retyping copy and enabled us to publish more color photos without paying $25 each for color correction. I admit that my first efforts using Photoshop left a lot to be desired, but I finally got the hang of it.
It became possible to hire assistants for the office. Over the years, I was well served by Rachel Harris, Todd Hagin, Anne Smith, Ormonde Lewis, and Mike Johnson, who succeeded me in 2010. The photos were taken for us by Jonas N. Jordan, and Paul H. Camp added a great deal to the paper’s quality, as did Rita Delorme, Mary Hood Hart, and Rachel Balducci’s columns.
The years of my tenure (1997-2010) were intensely challenging ones for the Church and the world—the Sesquicentennial of the Diocese of Savannah and dedication of the restored Cathedral in 2000, the attacks of September 11, 2001, the ensuing wars in the Middle East, the abuse scandals of 2002 and later, the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 and the economic collapse of 2008, were just some of the memorable events that required coverage and commentary from a Catholic point of view. In my last month as the editor, I was honored by the Catholic Press Association with first, second, and third place awards for three recent editorials.
At Bishop Boland’s request, I continued to write weekly editorial commentaries for the Southern Cross, more and more often of a catechetical nature. The paper has gone from a 12-page weekly to a 16-page bi-weekly and will become a monthly magazine next month.
I have felt very honored to do my part for our beloved Southern Cross for nearly half a century. I hope to continue to do so in its new incarnation.