Msgr. Phil Johnson (1938-2013) left his legacy at St. Vincent de Paul, St. Michael parishes

By Nicki Prevou


May 11, 2013


Msgr. Johnson smiles at Most Blessed Sacrament Church on June 15, 2008. He was honored at a special ceremony during which he and three other priests of the diocese were given papal honors for their service within the Diocese of Fort Worth.

“Humorous.” “Warm.” “Vibrant.” “Friendly.” Compassionate.” “Energetic.” “Collaborative.” “Joyful.” “A leader.” “An organizer.” ‘”Visionary.”

Monsignor Philip Louis Johnson was thus lovingly described at his funeral Mass, celebrated April 25 at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Arlington, a parish he founded in 1976 and led as its pastor until 2001.

Father Jeff Poirot, pastor of Holy Family Church in Fort Worth, roamed through the congregation of approximately 1,500 mourners, eliciting descriptive phrases as those gathered recalled the beloved priest, who died April 20 at the age of 74, following a lengthy illness.

“Charismatic.” “Gracious.” “Forgiving.” “Inclusive.” “Irrepressible.” “A community servant.” “A happy, holy priest.”

Fr. Poirot incorporated these phrases and his own memories into the funeral homily, explaining that he was a young seminarian when he first met Msgr. Johnson.

“He became my friend, a mentor, a teacher, someone who challenged me, and, as for many of you, he helped me through some tough times,” Fr. Poirot recalled, noting that Msgr. Johnson, a dedicated supporter of young seminarians, also served as a loyal caregiver and advocate for his brother priests during their times of serious illness.

“Whatever we called him, however well these words expressed who he was for you and for your family, these words describe just a small portion of the impact that he had upon our lives,” reflected Fr. Poirot. “The impact of his life was as one who embodied the Gospel. He brought others to Christ by meeting them where they were at. Like Christ, he didn’t wait for others to come to him — he sought others out.”

Heart of the family


A young Philip Johnson (far left) is shown here with his older brother, Brian, and infant sister, Lauren, at the family home in Bridgeport, Connecticut. (Photo courtesy of St. Vincent de Paul Parish)

That image resonates with the scores of former parishioners, family members, and friends who cherish his memory and reflect upon his pivotal role in their lives. According to his siblings, “Philip with one l” was the joyous life of the party at any gathering, the “heart of the family” who was always well equipped with jokes, sage observations, and sound advice.

“And yet, even though we were all extremely proud of him, we had no idea that he was so beloved,” marveled Msgr. Johnson’s brother, Brian Johnson, the oldest of the six children born to Gordon Emmett Johnson and Thelma Marie Murphy Johnson. “We really didn’t know that he was so important to so many people. It overwhelmed us, to see this outpouring of love and wonderful memories at his vigil and his funeral Mass. He never bragged about himself, so we didn’t know how much he had accomplished in his life.”

Marla Johnson Whelan, the youngest of the Johnson siblings, agreed that Msgr. Johnson was modest about his work as a parish priest and as a respected leader in the diocese. “He so loved that life; he so loved being of service in that way,” she recalled. “He was such a tolerant person, and so inclusive and welcoming to people. I think that might have come from the fact that our father was not Catholic. Even so, as a family, we were all very much together as my parents raised all six of us, with Mass with our mother each Sunday, and meals around the table each evening.”

This formal portrait of Father Philip Johnson was taken shortly after his ordination on May 30, 1964. Fr. Johnson attended Assumption Seminary in San Antonio and was ordained at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Dallas, now the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, as a priest for the Diocese of Dallas/Fort Worth. (Photo courtesy of St. Vincent de Paul Parish)

The Johnson family had moved, first from Maine, and later from Connecticut, because of Gordon Johnson’s work, wrote Msgr. Johnson in a brief autobiographical sketch. “In 1949 my father was transferred to the Chance Vought plant in Grand Prairie as a service representative…. We moved to Texas, living first in Dallas and then in 1951 relocating to Arlington. I finished grade school and high school there, leaving for the seminary in 1956. I attended Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, being ordained in 1964 at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Dallas (now the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe) as a priest for the Dallas/Fort Worth Diocese.”

The young priest served as an associate pastor at three Dallas churches from 1964 to 1967. In December of 1967, he was sent to St. John the Apostle Church in North Richland Hills. When given a choice in 1969, he decided to stay in his current location rather than to return to the Dallas area when the Diocese of Dallas/Fort Worth split into two separate entities.

“In 1973 I was appointed pastor of [the Catholic parishes in] Bridgeport, Jacksboro, and Decatur,” he wrote. “…I began to enjoy it very quickly and made some marvelous friends. I continued to be involved in the business of committees for the diocese and all the other programs that were developing during that time in the diocese.”

“That time in the diocese” involved his high-profile leadership in a new era in the Catholic Church in the years following the Second Vatican Council. While serving as the diocesan director of youth ministry for several years, he became known for his commitment to the development and training of lay ecclesial ministers across the diocese, while also helping to establish and to expand the Marriage Tribunal within the Diocese of Fort Worth.

Founding Pastor

Msgr. Johnson (second from right) stands with Bishop Joseph Delaney, Father Gary Guertz (far left) and with St. Vincent de Paul parishioner Peter Hatton (far right) at the dedication of the present St. Vincent de Paul Church building in far Southwest Arlington. The dedication ceremony was held Nov. 4, 1984. (Photo courtesy of St. Vincent de Paul Parish)

During what he later called “the happiest years of his life,” Msgr. Johnson was called upon by Bishop John J. Cassata to found a new Catholic church in Southwest Arlington. While only a small handful of area Catholics first gathered to meet in a Knights of Columbus Hall in February of 1976, the first-time pastor’s dynamic, accessible style of leadership eventually resulted in a parish community of 2,500 families; a contemporary church facility with a seating capacity of 1,500; an expansive parish physical plant, and a widespread reputation for excellence in faith formation for adults, children, and youth.

Gerri Dunning, who has served as historian for the parish since its inception, has taken thousands of pictures of parish events through the years, including interfaith celebrations held for the Ulster Project, an ecumenical program designed to build relationships between Catholic and Protestant teens in Northern Ireland, which Msgr. Johnson helped to found in Arlington in 1993.

As Dunning reviewed the photo albums which included everything from baptisms to Men’s Club events, she pointed out the fact that “Father Phil” was often a smiling background figure in the countless scenes depicting the rich, vibrant life of a large parish family. “He saw himself as one of us, working alongside us, not as someone on a pedestal,” she explained. “People just loved him. He made people want to be a part of what was happening here.”

Diane Donahue was a longtime staff member at St. Vincent de Paul’s, initially hired by Msgr. Johnson to work in preschool ministry and, later, to serve as director of youth ministry. His religious vocation and his expansive vision of ministry seemed to flow from his own experience of a “happy, healthy family life,” said Donahue.

“He came from a great family, and he saw how important it was to work with parents, to nurture the children and youth in the Catholic faith,” she explained. “He himself had a great upbringing, a very loving upbringing. He wanted that for everyone, and he wanted us, as a parish staff, to support, encourage, and assist families.

“He built a great infrastructure at this parish,” added Donahue. “When it came to the parish staff members, he saw our gifts, and he made us believe in what we could do. He encouraged us to pursue continuing education, to keep growing in our own faith and understanding of the Scriptures, and now, Father Tom [Craig] has done a wonderful job of continuing and expanding Msgr. Johnson’s vision. We at St. Vincent’s feel blessed to have been a part of his legacy.”

Dedication to Service


Preschool children at SVDP offer items for a parish food drive to Msgr. Johnson at the offertory during Mass. “He loved to include children and youth in the liturgy,” said Celia Douglas, director of children's ministry at St. Vincent. “He always wanted them to feel at home in the church.” (Photo courtesy of St. Vincent de Paul Parish)

Msgr. Johnson’s focus upon the importance of service within faith communities and his gift for friendship were threads that ran throughout his years as a priest, noted his longtime friend Father Robert Thames, a missionary priest of the Diocese of Fort Worth.

“When I went to Mexico in 1986, his parish there [St. Vincent de Paul] began a working relationship with us in Ciudad Juárez, sending volunteer teams in the summer of youth and adults to build churches of construction pallets and sheet metal roofs. He also came, not exactly a vacation for him, but it was enjoyable for me,” wrote Fr. Thames in a recent e-mail. “With his help we formed a maternity clinic which became self-sustaining and continues to this day.” Fr. Thames, who now serves in Cabezas, Bolivia, said that there is still not another maternity unit on that side of Juárez.

Msgr. Johnson could be depended upon to offer personal support and pastoral care in any circumstance, wrote Fr. Thames. “When I had my second heart attack in September 1995, he came to see me although I was heavily sedated and in intensive care at the time,” recalled Fr. Thames. “Whenever any priest friend of his was sick, he left his own work and visited to give his support. All of this was [in addition to] his constant visits to the sick in his own parish.”

“People remember him for his joking ways and his great sense of humor, but he was also a very spiritual person,” mused Connie Bohn, an Arlington travel agent who, with her husband, Roger, first met Msgr. Johnson in 1975. Beginning in 1997, Bohn and an ever-expanding group of friends went on bi-annual trips with Msgr. Johnson to destinations such as Italy, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Greece, and Russia; in later years, Father Tom Craig, Msgr. Johnson’s successor at St. Vincent’s, joined in, said Bohn. The priests celebrated memorable Masses together in tiny chapels, impressive cathedrals, and crowded hotel rooms, with Msgr. Johnson singing the Eucharistic prayers, she recalled. “Those Masses were so special for all of us,” said Bohn. “And now, I’m so grateful for all of those wonderful memories.”

A new chapter

Msgr. Johnson is depicted here at one of the several Masses he and Fr. Tom Craig celebrated at sea during a Mediterranean cruise in 2010. (Photo courtesy of St. Vincent de Paul Parish)

2001 marked a new chapter in Msgr. Johnson’s life, when, after 26 years at St. Vincent’s, he was named pastor of St. Michael Church in Bedford, one of the largest and most diverse Catholic communities in the diocese, with more than 3,400 families at the time of his arrival.

In the frightening and uncertain aftermath of 9/11, the St. Michael community gratefully embraced their new priest, who, with characteristic energy, led the parish in new initiatives and in creating a new strategic plan.

“He brought vitality and a great vision to this parish,” declared longtime St. Michael’s parishioner John Miller. Miller and his wife, Pat, have lived in many different parts of the country, he said. “And yet, until we came to St. Michael’s, we had never lived in such a dynamic parish, and that was because of Msgr. Johnson and the way he encouraged people to become involved,” Miller said. “He had a great gift to bring out the best in people and to increase their spirituality.”

Msgr. Johnson shared a vision of stewardship with the faith community that energized and united its members, said Miller. “We are blessed here, at St. Michael’s, to have representation from Tongan, African, Vietnamese, Indian, Filipino, Hispanic, and many other ethnic groups. Msgr. Johnson asked that everyone share their gifts, in ways that celebrated their own traditions. And people responded with so much gratitude. He was like a great coach in the way he moved us forward.”

Under the leadership of St. Michael’s current pastor, Father John Swistovich, added Miller, “Msgr. Johnson’s legacy has continued. Our ministries have continued to grow.”

In June of 2008, Pope Benedict XVI recognized Father Johnson — who had, by then, celebrated 44 years of priesthood — as a “Prelate of Honor to His Holiness” with the title of “Monsignor.” The occasion was marked with a ceremony held for Msgr. Johnson and three other priests of the diocese, including his longtime friend Monsignor Joseph Scantlin, at Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Arlington.

Not quite retired

Joined by St. Michael parishioners (to his left) Terri Tice, Peg Frieden, and Mike Kinsella, Msgr. Johnson and (far left) St. Vincent parishioner Connie Bohn played dominoes during a Mediterranean cruise in 2010, which was the last of his biannual summer trips with a large group of friends. (Photo courtesy of St. Vincent de Paul Parish)

With health issues complicating his busy life, Msgr. Johnson retired in July of 2011, receiving a loving farewell from his community at St. Michael’s, along with the title of “Pastor Emeritus.” He happily joined Fr. Jeff Poirot as “priest in residence” at Holy Family Church in West Fort Worth, endearing himself to a whole new parish family with his trademark humor.

“No matter how hard I tried to convince him that he was my associate pastor, it just didn’t work,” Fr. Poirot confided to the congregation gathered for Msgr. Johnson’s funeral. “Instead, he insisted that I refer to him as “M’lord.”

Their beloved friend and spiritual leader was indeed a man of great humor and many impressive gifts, said Father Tom Craig, as he presided at the vigil service, held at St. Vincent’s on the evening of April 24.

“And really, the one thing that draws us all together is our hunger for Christ in our lives,” added Fr. Craig. “We also hunger for those who proclaim Jesus Christ in our lives and who show us the Father. [Msgr. Johnson] was able to show us the fullness of the Father from his own perspective. He showed us that God is very forgiving, and God embraces all of us.”

Fr. Craig paused to look at the open casket. The man he called his “friend and mentor” lay peacefully in state, in the shadow of the altar, present, for the last time, in the church he had helped to build — surrounded by those who had deeply loved and admired him.

With emotion, Fr. Craig concluded his remarks. “So Phil — while we are saddened by our loss of you, saddened by the illness that has overcome you, we are extremely grateful for what you have shared with us: the image of our Father among us.” Fr. Craig paused. “And for that, we owe you a debt of gratitude. Thank you, Monsignor, for your love, for your service to Him, for your words that spoke of Christ to all of us.”

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“Humorous.” “Warm.” “Vibrant.” “Friendly.” Compassionate.” “Energetic.” “Collaborative.” “Joyful.” “A leader.” “An organizer.” ‘”Visionary.” Monsignor Philip Louis Johnson was thus lovingly described at his funeral Mass, celebrated April 25 at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Arlington, a parish he founded in 1976 and led as its pastor until 2001.

Published (until 5/11/2063)