Missionary known as the "High Priest of Soul" dies at Techny

Father George Artis, 1931-2010

Artis,_Fr_George_for_webDivine Word Father George Artis Jr., who had a gift for recognizing talent, passed away on Saturday, Sept. 11, at Techny, Ill., at the age of 79.

Born and raised in Wilmington, N.C., George Jr. was the eldest of Hazel (nee Smith) and George Henry Artis Sr.’s three children. The couple’s only son became a Divine Word Missionary at age 23. He professed first vows at Techny in 1954 and perpetual vows in 1960 in Bay St. Louis, Miss. In 1962, Archbishop John Cody of New Orleans (who later served as Cardinal in Chicago) ordained the young Artis at St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis.

During the first few years of his priesthood, Father Artis studied education at Springhill College in Mobile, Ala., and at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

In 1963, he became assistant pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary in Lafayette, La., where he served for five years. From 1968 until 1999, he served five parishes as pastor: St. Paul the Apostle in Baton Rouge, La. (1968 to 1975); St. Mary of the Purification in Houston, Texas, (1975-1984); Immaculate Heart of Mary in Lafayette, La., (1984-1986); Holy Cross in Austin, Texas (1986-1996); and Holy Ghost Church in Jackson, Miss. (1996-1999).

Over the years, Father Artis served on the boards of several civic and religious organizations, including the Knights of Peter Claver, Houston Metropolitan Ministries, the Campaign for Human Development, and the Black Catholic Community Concerns Association (BCCCA), a Catholic community-based organization that encouraged Houstonians of all backgrounds to work together to combat urban social problems.

As a board member of the BCCCA, he appeared before the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Census in 1979 and urged Congress to address the issue of undercounting the urban poor and to support a public education campaign on the importance of accurate census counts.

He also was the leading proponent for reopening St. Mary’s Catholic School in Houston and built it into one of the finest schools in the city. "Our reading program was second to none in the city," said Edmund Broussard, a parishioner of St. Mary of the Purification for more than 50 years. "We give him full credit. When he comes before the Lord, they’re going to tell them all about that school."

One of St. Mary’s high-profile parishioners, Congressman Mickey Leland, counted Father Artis as both a friend and a spiritual advisor. "He and Mickey Leland were good friends," Broussard said. Leland, who founded the House of Representatives’ Select Committee on World Hunger, is perhaps best remembered for the worldwide attention he brought to famine in Africa in the 1980s.

Father Artis’s support of the less fortunate continued into the autumn of his career. In the late 1980s in Texas, Father Artis led a coalition of 35 churches called Austin Interfaith, a coalition of 35 churches that organized to stop an airport expansion that would displace an estimated 27,000 residents—mostly African-American families—who owned homes in the proposed expansion zone. Instead of expansion, the group persuaded political leaders to build a new airport in an area that would not require families to move.

His efforts to uplift people were not confined to the civic and political activities. While serving St. Paul the Apostle parish in Baton Rouge, Father Artis discovered and inspired R&B/soul recording artist Arlington "Tunnie" Smith, who scored a Billboard chart-topper in 1973. Father Artist recognized the pre-teen’s talent, introduced him to a local band, and helped him land a record contract.

"Stevie Wonder used to call him the ‘high priest of soul,’" said Smith, who has been a parishioner at St. Paul since age 13 when Father Artis baptized him and welcomed him as an altar server.

"Father was a joy," said Smith, who recalled a time when Father Artis donned a wig and got on stage to perform with Stevie Wonder. "He was more excited about my music career than I was. He worked harder than anyone. Persistent. He stayed on top of it to the very end."

Smith, who continues to record and perform, remembered how Father Artis stayed active in the community, meeting with local political leaders and attending community meetings in order to keep the summer youth program going.

The Divine Word Missionaries at Techny, celebrated Father Artis’s life with a wake and Mass on Sept. 17. His funeral Mass and burial was held at the St. Augustine Residence in Bay St. Louis on Sept. 20. He is interned at St. Augustine cemetery in Bay St. Louis. He is survived by his sister Hazel Shaw of Wilmington, N.C.

In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be made in the name of Father George Artis for the work of the missionaries in the Society of the Divine Word Southern Province, 199 Seminary Dr., Bay St. Louis, MS 39520.

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