By Katie Fallon
Members of the Sandy Springs Police Department now have an extra level of protection in addition to their bulletproof vests.
At the July 17 city council meeting, Monsignor Donald Kiernan was sworn in as the first chaplain for the police department. Head pastor at All Saints Catholic Church in Dunwoody, Kiernan has spent the entirety of his 58-year career at Catholic churches all over Georgia.
Kiernan, 82, came to Georgia soon after becoming ordained in 1949. At the time, he said there were only 33 Catholic priests in the entire state. His first assignment was in Savannah and he has since served in communities like Cedartown, Gainesville, Monroe and downtown Atlanta.
However, his work with police departments began out of necessity.
Kiernan said he was assigned to a church in Atlanta in 1954 when he had to call the Atlanta Police Department because there was a prowler in the basement.
“They came and the two officers asked me to go for a ride,” Kiernan said. “From then on, they picked me up every night.”
As the monsignor became more known within the APD, he gradually became friends with the patrol officers, sergeants, lieutenants and eventually the chief. In fact, as Kiernan’s primary profession took him to congregations across the state, he was able to take letters of recommendation from one police chief to the next.
In the more than half century since first serving as a police chaplain, Kiernan has also blazed a few trails within the law enforcement community. He helped organize the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, which offers training as well as educational and information sharing opportunities to its personnel.
“We had the first police school long before they had academies,” Kiernan said.
Currently a chaplain for both the Georgia State Patrol and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), Kiernan said his duties as a chaplain have varied from department to department.
“Really, a chaplain does as much as a chief wants him to do,” Kiernan said jokingly. “If a man is a chaplain and the chief’s not happy with him, then he’s not going to do much except say a prayer here and there.”
In reality, Sandy Springs Police Chief Gene Wilson said Kiernan will essentially serve as a counselor to the more than 100 sworn officers who serve the community.
“He would be there if we had any sort of internal emergency,” Wilson said. “He’s basically a resource and also a tie to the community.”
For instance, Kiernan said he was in Gainesville recently when he got a call from the GBI about an agent whose granddaughter was killed in a car accident. With the aid of a cell phone, which is a technology fairly new to the octogenarian, Kiernan said he was able to get to the family and help them deal with their tragedy.
Similarly, Kiernan also helped counsel the law enforcement officials who first uncovered the atrocities at the Tri-State Crematory in northwest Georgia in 2002.
“One of the problems is the older you get, the bigger parishes you get so your time is kind of limited,” Kiernan said. “But like any emergency, it takes a priority.”
Kiernan’s journey to Sandy Springs came via his friendship with Wilson and Major David Bertrand, who he knew from their tenure with the DeKalb County Police Department.
“[Kiernan] mentioned he’d like to do it,” Wilson said. “Because of his long experience, we thought he’d be a natural.”
Senior Trooper Larry Schnall of the state patrol said Kiernan joins approximately 15 other chaplains within the GSP. His duties within that organization, Schnall said, include speaking to classes of trooper cadets, giving benedictions and invocations at law enforcement functions, counseling troopers for various personal or religious reasons and speaking at trooper funerals.
Kiernan explained that although he is a Catholic priest, he broadens his teachings to accommodate a broader spectrum of public safety personnel.
“You’re the chaplain to all the police men and police women so no matter what religion, and even if they don’t have a religion, you would accommodate yourself for the situation,” he said. Wilson said the police department hopes to eventually hire another two or three chaplains who would ideally come from various religious faiths.