After almost 38 years as the campus minister at the Catholic Center at Georgia Tech, Father Mario Di Lella, O.F.M. is retiring from service. On Monday, May 5, Father Mario will leave the Tech community for a retirement community of Franciscan priests, the St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, Florida. His legacy, however, will live on at Tech.
Since his appointment here in 1970, Father Mario has become a well-known figure on campus. This is perhaps because of his dedication to being involved in campus life in a wider sphere than just in the Catholic Center and his constant presence in the lives of students.
“The most important part of my ministry here at Tech is simply being available,” Father Mario said. “ Since I live in the Catholic Center, I get to be here for my kids 365 days a year. I am right here available for whatever anyone needs. This means I can be a real part of my kids’ lives to make a real impact.”
Father Mario considers the Tech students he works with to be like children or grandchildren. This often means that his involvement in Tech students’ lives continues even after they graduate. Father Mario has kept in touch with many students after they leave, some even for more than 30 years after their graduation. Many of his students are married in the Catholic Center or have their marriages blessed by Father Mario. Some students who were married in the early years of Father Mario’s time at Tech have since sent their children to him, and Father Mario makes a special effort to welcome them to Tech even before they arrive at campus.
“We were surprised when our son received his ‘welcome’ letter from Fr. Mario upon his acceptance at Georgia Tech,” said Carol Donovan, a former active member of the Catholic Center who graduated in 1977. “Both (my husband) Jack and I had good memories of Fr. Mario from 25 years earlier. He was our pastor while Jack and I were dating and through the early years of our marriage. Many years later he married [our son Chris and his fiancée Katie] in the new Catholic Center. He will always be a part of our family memories.”
Father Mario is also a faithful fan of many of the athletic teams at Tech. Since the early years of Bobby Cremins’s job as men’s basketball coach until only a few years ago, Father Mario was Chaplain of the men’s and women’s basketball teams. He would sit behind the bench at every home game and even travel with the team at least twice a year.
This tradition then carried over to the football team, where he served as Chaplain under three coaches up through George O’Leary’s time as football coach. He attended every football game, including away games when he was the Chaplain for the team. The only athletic team Father Mario still chaplains today is women’s basketball, but he still attends many other games as an avid fan, despite his declaration that he “really knows nothing about sports.”
Tech has recognized Father Mario’s many accomplishments for students by making him an honorary member of both Omicron Delta Kappa and ANAK under President Petit. He was later made an honorary alumnus for Homecoming 1990, the highest decoration given by Georgia Tech. This made him the 105th person honored in the year the Institute became 105 years old.
“It made me so proud to officially be a part of this school just like [students] will be when [they] graduate,” Father Mario said.
While Father Mario is most proud of his involvement in student life, his most tangible legacy will be the Catholic Center building itself. When Father Mario came to Tech, the Catholic Center was just a little house on 3rd street, but soon his ministry outgrew the small house and services had to be held in the Student Center ballroom or theatre. Father Mario threw himself into the process of getting a new center approved by the archdiocese, personally writing a proposal that took almost six months to finish.
Over several years, Father Mario helped raise the necessary $1 million for the building and approved plans created by Tech architecture professors Dale Durfee and Rufus Hughes.
The new Catholic Center was finally opened October 20, 1985.
“The best thing about the Catholic Center is that I’m right in the middle of things. Sometimes the fraternities can be loud right outside my window, as they can go until three or five in the morning on a Saturday night. But it doesn’t matter, because I get to be more connected to my kids,” Father Mario said.
Father Mario has served as everything from head pastoral associate for Olympic Village Catholics during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics to less glamorous jobs such as all-nighter minister to Tech students trying to finish last minute projects in the basement of the Catholic center, but he has loved it all.
“An unknown wise person once wrote: ‘If you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.’ In all humility and candor, I can truly say after 55 years of Priesthood, ‘I have never worked a day in my life,’” he said.