‘The Almighty has done great things for me,’ says the Colombia-born priest on his silver jubilee
By Dan McWilliams
Surrounded by the parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi in Townsend, whom he has led for five years as their pastor, Father Antonio Giraldo celebrated his 25th anniversary of priestly ordination on Nov. 20.
A native of Colombia who helps the people of his homeland through different charities, Father Giraldo called the occasion of his anniversary Mass on the solemnity of Christ the King “a very special day for me” as he delivered his homily in both English and Spanish.
“Twenty-five years ago, I had the privilege of being chosen to serve the Church in the ministry of priesthood,” he said. “Today, I would like to sing with Our Lady, as I did 25 years ago during my first holy Mass: ‘The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.’ I firmly believe the Lord continues using the ‘little and weak’ to do His work among us.”
Celebrating the Mass four days before Thanksgiving, Father Giraldo said that “I want this to be a Mass of thanksgiving to God for all He has done in my life and for allowing me to unite with all of you here today to celebrate the 25th anniversary of my priesthood.”
Many people have asked him how he discovered his vocation, Father Giraldo said.
“All I can say is that I was searching for happiness in my life and mysteriously ended up in the priesthood,” he said. “But the good news is that you don’t have to be ordained as a priest to find that happiness. All you need to do is love God, honor your parents, and follow the way of Jesus. May God bless you, and thank you for being here today.”
Bishop Richard F. Stika spoke at the end of Mass.
“A 25th anniversary is very significant,” he said. “I bring with me heartfelt congratulations, thanks, and love for all you’ve done in 25 years of priesthood but especially here in Townsend. It’s just gorgeous, all the different projects that have happened—it always takes the leadership of a pastor.
“Ad multos annos, Father—many, many years. I offer my congratulations to you and to your family. We give praise to almighty God for your parents, because they always say the first seminary of any priest is the family. I was able to meet some of Father’s family when I was in Colombia a number of years ago, and you can see where his vocation came from.”
Julie Dew, a parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi, said Father Giraldo means “pretty much everything” to the parish.
“We are so blessed to have him here,” she said. “To have a resident priest out here in this small town, first of all, is truly a miracle but a blessing on top of that because he leads us with his knowledge of Scripture and the different documents. Not only his intellect but his love that he has for us, his family here at Townsend. He has such love, and he’s not afraid to show it. Like I said, he’s pretty much everything here.”
Vivian Brocato is a parishioner of St. Mary in Athens who has known Father Giraldo since he began serving at St. Thérèse of Lisieux in Cleveland in February 2002. Mrs. Brocato, a reader at St. Mary who also volunteers as a registered nurse with the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic in Athens and Decatur, and Father Giraldo work with the charity One Heart Colombia Mission. Father Giraldo is the mission’s executive and spiritual director.
“I’ve gotten to know him very well since then,” Mrs. Brocato said. “I have volunteered as our secretary for One Heart Colombia, which is now a nonprofit. Father [Joe] Brando was the one who started that mission—we’ve been continuing with that mission ever since. To support our wonderful priest and friend, I wanted to be part of this great celebration.”
Father Giraldo first encountered the Diocese of Knoxville around 2000 while serving at Immaculate Conception Parish in Marsella, Colombia. His nephew Carlos Hidalgo, a parishioner at St. Thérèse, asked the diocese’s second shepherd, Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz, if his uncle could serve at the Cleveland parish. Because the diocese needed bilingual priests, Bishop Kurtz asked Father Giraldo to visit.
When Father Giraldo returned to Colombia, he asked his bishop for permission to serve in Knoxville, and at the time the answer was no. About a year later, Father Giraldo returned to Tennessee for a vacation and met Father Brando, who had asked for the Colombian priest’s help after becoming pastor of St. Thérèse in 2001. By that point, Father Giraldo’s home diocese had a new bishop, who gave him permission to serve the Diocese of Knoxville for one year. After that, his stay could be extended, and it was.
Father Giraldo was new at that time to Tennessee but not to the United States. He earned his associate’s degree in liberal arts from Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., in 1976. Three years later, he earned a bachelor’s in business with an emphasis in marketing and international business from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill.
After he finished school, he spent 18 years working in different fields. He worked for the Illinois migrant council, taught economics at Libre University in Colombia, and owned a jewelry business.
But he felt unfilled, telling The East Tennessee Catholic in 2002 that “I just got tired of everything. I was never happy with what I was doing. I like helping people. I discovered that when I went to seminary. I quit a couple of times, but I couldn’t stay away. When I was away, I was sad because in the seminary I had peace.”
He completed his studies in philosophy and theology at St. Johannes Marie Vianney Adult Seminary in Colombia and was ordained a priest on Nov. 22, 1997.
Bishop Stika spoke after the anniversary Mass of Father Giraldo’s support of the poor in Colombia.
“He originally came from Colombia, so he’s a true missionary,” the bishop said. “He’s got family in Cleveland, Tenn. I was privileged a number of years ago to be on a mission trip with him in Colombia, and I saw some very poor areas. He does outstanding work with others in terms of touching the lives of people in need. He’s got a number of different innovations that he’s worked on over the years and ways to help them. He’s done a beautiful job here at Townsend at St. Francis—the hall, the church, the outside grounds, and the columbarium. He’s a true leader of the faith, and the people love him.”
St. Francis of Assisi parishioners held a celebration in Father Giraldo’s honor in the parish life center following the Mass.