Meet Fr. Athanasius Fornwalt, FHS: First to be ordained for religious community

Fr. Athanasius Fornwalt, FHS, will be serving as prefect for studies for his community while he completes an STL in pastoral theology with an emphasis on the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. (Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN)

With his ordination to the priesthood June 3, Fr. Athanasius Fornwalt, FHS, marked a major milestone for himself and his community: he was the first of the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit to be ordained a priest.

Fr. Athanasius was among seven founders — five of whom were already priests — of the community that was established last year. Even though he’s a religious, because the community is directly under the bishop, he was ordained for the diocese.

“It’s a great honor to belong to this priesthood … and also to be able to serve in the diocese,” said Fr. Athanasius.

Born Richard Fornwalt, he first felt a call to the priesthood while in high school when he was an altar server at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Altoona, Pennsylvania, particularly during the Triduum.

“I felt at peace close to the altar in the sanctuary,” he said.

He was introduced to the Franciscan spirituality while attending Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, Pennsylvania. After his father passed away, the grieving student joined a prayer group led by Fr. Joseph Francis LePage, who would later join him in establishing the community.

“We got into how to pray. I experienced my faith in a different way, so it was through that personal contact,” Fr. Athanasius recalled. “After that experience, just having the life of St. Francis — I thought his life was very beautiful and it attracted me.”

After graduating, he studied philosophy for a year on his own before entering the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular and attending the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

While in seminary, he discerned a call to help establish the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit with a charism to serve the Native American communities. He professed final vows to Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted and received the religious name of “Athanasius” last July before finishing his studies at CUA. He became the first person ordained on a reservation in the diocese last November when Bishop Olmsted ordained him a deacon at St. John Parish in Laveen, where the friary is located.

As a deacon, Fr. Athanasius recalled preaching at least four days a week, performing baptisms and working with the youth group at St. Peter Mission in Bapchule. “I ended up baptizing probably eight or 10 people. That’s pretty amazing, especially on a reservation where you see more funerals than baptisms. … It’s given me time to assimilate to being in the sanctuary, assisting at the altar and more actively engaging in the pastoral life of the Church.”

Fr. Athanasius will be moving to Detroit this fall to earn a licentiate in sacred theology on pastoral theology in the New Evangelization from Sacred Heart Seminary. He’s also taken on an assignment as prefect of studies for the Friars, meaning he will oversee the formation of the Friars’ seminarians. Practically, he will be living with his fellow founder, Br. Peter Teresa McConnell, who will be completing his seminary studies in Detroit.

After his ordination, he celebrated his first Mass that evening at St. John. The next day, he celebrated Mass at two other Native American missions: St. Peter and St. Anthony in Sacaton.

“I love the small mission churches. They fill up with devout souls on Sunday,” he said. “I’m looking forward to consecrating the Eucharist and absolving sins the most.”