by Terri Schexnayder
On 27 April 2019, exactly 45 years to the date of his ordination to the Holy Priesthood, Msgr. Dr. Donald J. Joseph Sawyer—Fr. Don or “Abouna” to his parish family—celebrated his landmark anniversary with Liturgy, excellent cuisine, and music from DJ Miraelie at Our Lady’s Maronite Parish in Austin. Among the hundreds of attendees who were there to honor Fr. Don, Bishop A. Elias Zaidan praised the work of the pastor. “We first met in 1990 when I was pastor at St. George’s Maronite Church in San Antonio,” says Bishop Zaidan. “Father Don has always had a vision for a better future; he tries new things; and, is so welcoming to others.”
Although Fr. Don initially struggled as a young man about what his exact calling was, he vividly remembers moments from his childhood when he would create altars at home and was fascinated by the priest’s vestments when his family attended St. Mary’s in Austin. His mother, Julia J. Sawyer, whom everyone acknowledges as one of the key founders of Our Lady’s and passed away in 2009, used to tell her son a story. He would ride on his father’s shoulders and point at one of the priests, exclaiming, “Daddy, priest, priest—me!” As a teenager, Don Sawyer progressed through high school and college, always hearing the Lord’s gentle reminder, “Have a good time at the dance, but understand you won’t marry and have kids.”
“When I first heard the consecration in Aramaic from a recording, I knew this is what I wanted—to be a Maronite priest,” recalls Father Don. “Someone once said to me, ‘Congratulations! You are not Roman Rite … you are Maronite!’ How true that was!”
On 27 April 1974, after graduating with a Masters in Theology from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, his dream came true as he was ordained a Maronite priest by Archbishop Francis M. Zayek. Fr. Don served several parishes, including Sacred Heart Church in Austin, before leading the effort to “build from scratch” Our Lady’s Maronite Parish. He became its pastor in 1990 and achieved his doctorate from Austin Presbyterian Seminary the following year. Father Don shares that the first collection at Our Lady’s began with $46.00. He marvels at the parish’s growth through his mother’s passion for her son’s calling, and the dedication and financial support of Our Lady’s parishioners.
“Our parish is very unique in that our members are from many and varied cultural, social, and economic backgrounds. We have many converts and many who were Roman Rite. We are a very inclusive and welcoming community,” says Father Don. “It is wonderful to celebrate with so many of those early founders and new parishioners tonight.”